Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Busting Publishing Myths

Wow, it seems I struck a nerve with my Borders rant. I've read about that handselling policy online, but I only have visited that one store, so I don't know if that store's manager takes it more seriously than others or if I just look approachable enough that I get the full onslaught (plus, I tend to be in the store in off hours when I may be the only customer). Aside from the personal irritation, I mostly feel bad for the employees whose performance evaluations are tied to this silly practice and who have the impossible task of trying to make everyone buy a book chosen at the corporate level. I do know that if I get desperate enough to look for any kind of day job, I won't be applying at Borders. I can talk about books all day, but I can't sell something aggressively (I couldn't even sell Girl Scout cookies).

Now, for the semi-weekly writing post:
From my regular excursions around the Internet and from the way I see the book industry portrayed on TV, I get the impression that there are a lot of false impressions out there about the way publishing works. To help clear things up, I'll address some myths and realities about publishing. (This would be more fun if it were on Mythbusters and I could literally blow things up, but I'm stuck using words.)

Myth #1: You have to know somebody to get a book published. It's all about who you know.
Reality: It's mostly about the book for a first-time author. For other authors, it's about the sales numbers on previous books in addition to the quality and the potential sales for this book.
Exception: If you're famous for something else, it may be easier to get a book published -- if you're already known as a journalist, actor, model, singer or reality show personality, your novel will probably sell on the basis of your name instead of on the merits of the book itself. Sadly, there are people out there who will buy something just because it has a famous person's name on it, and famous people have a better chance of publicizing a book because they can get on talk shows and get other interviews. But I would consider this more a case of "who knows you" than "who you know."
Explanation: It doesn't hurt to know people in the business, but just knowing people isn't that big a help. It might get you a faster read instead of languishing in the slush pile, but it still comes down to the merits of the book, and they're not going to buy a book they wouldn't have bought otherwise just because they know you. I know a lot of people in the business. I'm personal friends with a lot of editors and agents. But when I sold the Enchanted, Inc. series, the agent I went with was one I'd never met, and I approached her in the same way anyone else would, by sending a query letter according to her guidelines, and the editor who bought it was one I'd never heard of. I've never sold a book to an editor I already knew pretty well. Where knowing people -- whether in a personal friendship or just by following blogs -- helps is in helping you know what's going on in the industry, what kinds of books are selling and what various editors' and agents' particular pet peeves or interests are. Not that you should stick dogs in your book just because you learn that a particular agent is a dog lover, for example, but if you've written a book involving a dog, then you might highlight that aspect of your book in your query to that agent, or if the dog dies in your book, you'd know that agent would likely be turned off.
Bottom line: Make contacts and do your research, but don't count on that selling the book for you. The only "easy" shortcut is to go become famous elsewhere and then try to sell your book. (Good luck with that.)

Myth #2: Once you sell your first book, it's easy sailing because you have your foot in the door.
Reality: Some things get easier. Some things actually get harder.
Explanation: This myth tends to come up in the context of complaints about the Catch-22 of publishing, that you have to have sold a book to get an agent, but you have to have an agent to sell a book, so once you sell a book, you've broken out of that catch and have it made. Already being published can help -- you may already have an agent and don't have to jump through the query process hoops with each new project. If you don't already have an agent, you are likely to be more attractive to agents with a sale under your belt. You already have a relationship with an editor and don't have to jump through the usual query hoops with each new project. However, you also now have a track record and numbers that go with your name, so they're not just guessing how well your book will sell based on sales of similar titles, they're projecting based on your actual sales numbers. A brand-new author could be the next big thing, but an existing author who wasn't the next big thing has baggage. An author who has sold a book may also be pigeonholed into a certain area so that publishers resist trying something new.
Bottom line: You have to be really successful on a consistent basis before this business becomes "easy."

Myth #3: Authors are wealthy.
Reality: Some authors do get rich, but most authors don't earn enough money to make a living from their writing and have to have other jobs or spouses to support them.
Explanation: We generally hear about the big, mega-selling authors because they're famous and because they sell a lot. You don't hear about Joe Author who gets a four-figure advance because nobody would care. Advances in the $5,000-$20,000 range are far, far more common than the six-figure or multi-million dollar advances, and most books don't earn royalties beyond their advances.
Then remember that this is a gross amount. From that, deduct 15 percent for the agent's commission and any business expenses -- which include just about any promotion and publicity the author wants to do, since the publisher doesn't pay for that. Unless they're lucky enough to have a spouse with a good health plan, authors have to pay for their own health insurance at individual rates. Authors also have to pay self-employment taxes, which is the amount that would be deducted from a paycheck for stuff like Social Security, plus the amount an employer would usually match (it's approximately double what's deducted from a paycheck). I have had years where my gross writing income was in the neighborhood of what I was making when I had a day job, but I've yet to have my net writing income match my take-home pay from my day job, even from when I was working part-time, and I wasn't working in a high-paying field. I don't have a day job, but I do some freelance writing, and I went into this with a large savings account from years of living frugally while I had a day job. Most years, I couldn't live on my fiction writing alone.
Bottom line: You could get lucky, but in general, this is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Myth #4: Publishers are only interested in "safe" books that don't push boundaries, and they'll reject anything too unusual.
Reality: Yes, and no. This is a business, so they're going to focus on making money, so they need to publish the books likely to appeal to the broadest base of readers. But most people who work in publishing are there because they love to read, and they'll work to make it happen if they come across something unusual that really knocks their socks off.
Explanation: This is generally a sour grapes myth -- the kind of thing people say when their books are rejected. It softens the blow to think that it wasn't the quality of what you wrote but rather the fact that it was too good for them. It's also easy to look at the bookstore shelves and think that they only want more of the same. To some extent, that is true, especially in tough times. They're going to go for the thing that they know for sure there's an audience for over the thing that's likely to have a smaller audience or that will require a lot of work (and money) to promote enough to get people to try it. Most of the books that seemed to come out of nowhere to become mega-bestsellers were rejected left and right before they sold. On the other hand, the odder your concept, the higher the quality your writing needs to be to get accepted. I have learned this one the hard way. I had a really out-there concept that did get rejected for being too weird, but I know that means that I didn't write well enough to pull off that concept (and someday I'll revisit it and see if I can write it better).
Bottom line: It is possible to be too out there, and the more out there you are, the better your book has to be. Of course, the better your book is, the better your chances are, whether you're writing something tried-and-true or something truly weird. Unfortunately, "good" is a subjective value.

Myth #5: You have to follow proper manuscript format to sell a book.
Reality: This is another one of those yes and no answers. You do want to present your manuscript professionally, but proper format is not a magical formula that will somehow elevate your book above the rest.
Explanation: If you're writing screenplays, you do need to follow a standard format because that's how they determine how long the produced film will be. Some short story markets are also picky about exactly how something is formatted. Most book publishers just want it to be double-spaced, with type that can be easily read, black ink on white paper. Supposedly, "standard manuscript format" involves 12 point Courier type, but I've heard editors and agents say they prefer other fonts (they don't agree on a font, which means there is no industry-wide standard). One of my former editors, who'd been in the business for years and who was a senior editor at a major publishing company, actually didn't know what "standard format" was (so I would assume you wouldn't be rejected for not using it). I used to write for a house that supposedly has a very specific format they want, and I'd sold two books to them before I learned this, so it must not have been crucial (and I didn't sell more to them once I started using their "standard" format). To play it safe, go with 12 point type in a reasonably standard font (Courier, Times New Roman, or something of that ilk -- no script, Gothic or Dingbats), double space, and use 1-inch margins all around. If your targeted market has a standard format they want to see, use it. Most editors and agents aren't going to reject a book just because the format isn't perfect if they otherwise love it, but if it's a pain to read, they may be more inclined to give up and stop reading sooner. Meanwhile, absolutely perfect formatting won't save a book if the content isn't there.
There is no standard length for chapters. It depends on the pacing and the way you want to structure your story. Some authors make each new scene its own chapter, some use chapters for point-of-view shifts, some vary chapter length and some keep the same length for each chapter. Typically, you would start each new chapter on a new page with the chapter heading about a third of the way down on the page.
Bottom line: Be professional and make it easy to read, but worry more about the story than the formatting because the story is what sells the book.

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