Every Commercial Writer is His or Her Own Small Business

Last week, I received an email from a high school buddy with whom I had not spoken in decades.  It’s always nice to reconnect.  Turns out that he and his wife are both writing fiction now–she a cozy mystery and he a fantasy/sci-fi novel–and he had some questions, and it occurred to me as I responded, the the whole exchange would make a nice post for TKZ.

First, to quote from his letter, “[My wife has] had no luck so far finding an agent, and wanted to know a few things that a published author might be able to enlighten her on.  Specifically, she wants to know, did you have to have your manuscripts professionally edited before submitting them to potential agents?  This seems a very expensive route for something that might not be picked up by anyone.  Also, many agents seem to want to know “how you intend to market your book.”    We always thought this was something the publisher did.  So, what are they looking for with this question?  I understand that all agents aren’t the same, but any information could help her get really started here.  she has started work on books two and three, and has a basic outline of the series for quite a long way down the road, so if we can maximize her chances of getting it considered by someone, any help would be greatly appreciated!”

Here is my response to him, picking up after the pleasantries:

You’ve asked some questions that are probably more complex than you realize, but I’ll give it shot.  First I encourage you to visit my website and click on the “Essays” tab.  You’ll find a section in the middle of that page that chronicles how I got published.  I should throw in a caveat that I found my first agent in 1995.  I cut my teeth in this business when all correspondence required envelopes and stamps, but the one thing that remains unchanged about the publishing industry is the continuing and insatiable need for good stories told well.

I urge your wife (and you, too) to look into a group called Sisters In Crime (SinC).  I’m not a member, but I know many writers of all levels of success who sing the praises of that group for its helpfulness to new and upcoming writers.

I personally have never used an outside editor, but I know many writers who do.  The point here is to make your manuscript as perfect as it can be before shipping it around to agents and editors.  The risk of using an outside editor is that not all are created equal.  It falls on the author’s shoulders to make sure that any changes proposed by an editor are in fact changes the author wants to make.  Sometimes, bad advice is worse than no advice at all.

As for the expense, only you can decide what is reasonable and what is not.  I guess it depends on how good your writerly instincts are, and how intent you are in seeing your works published.

The job of an editor at a publishing house is more that of a project manager than an editor in the sense that most people imagine them.  The editor is the person who buys the book, manages the cover design, and fights for dollars during marketing meetings.  They offer editorial input, of course, but they focus on making an already very good manuscript even better.  If the prose or the story require too much work, they’ll pass.

This brings us to the role of the agent.  Through the relationships they’ve built over the years with various houses, agents are aware of various editors’ tastes and desires.  The agent’s job is to spot literary properties that a) are already very well written, and b) are likely to fill a niche.  My agent, for example, is keenly dialed into the thriller market, the genre I write.  If I decided to write, say, a children’s book or a romance, she’d be of little help to me because she doesn’t know those markets and she doesn’t know the editors who acquire those books.

Now to marketing.  It’s a quirk of the publishing industry that irrespective of genre, a book is a product to be sold, and it goes stale on the shelf after only a month or two.  Books are largely forgotten after a period of time has passed.

What people remember, however, is the author.  Just as a book is a product, think of the author as the brand.  People who like cars have an opinion of, say, Ford that infects and affects buying decisions.  I happen to like Fords, so when I go shopping for a new car, that’s my go-to brand.  (On the flip side, my only experience with a General Motors vehicle–30 years ago!–was so awful that I would never consider another GM product, no matter what JD Powers might say.)  That’s the power–both the good and the bad–of branding.

If you’ll forgive me for referring to myself in the third person, John Gilstrap is my brand.  After 18 published novels, people who buy a Gilstrap book know that they’re going to get a wild ride with a story that is heavy on character and plot.  Good guys win in the aggregate, and bad guys have very, very bad days.  Whether part of my series, or in a stand alone novel, every story shares those basic characteristics.

No one is better able to build an author’s brand than the author him- or herself.  This means, to the degree that time and money allow, flogging social media, attending conferences, visiting bookstores, writing newsletters, establishing mailing lists, and any other strategies that might work.  A writer of commercial fiction is his own small business, and all of the principles of business apply.  When prospective agents ask about your marketing plans and platforms, this is what they’re wanting to know.

When a publisher offers a contract, they are in fact, investing in your business.  They will make sure that your product finds shelf space and distribution, and they’ll do their best to make the packaging attractive and engaging.  But if you don’t help them do their job, the smart business move on their part would be to invest in someone else’s business.

The letter then closed with some personal pleasantries.  So, what say you, TKZers?  Did I lead my buddy astray?  What did I leave out?

NOTE:  Since this is my last post of 2018, pending the arrival of our annual holiday hiatus, let me wish all of you a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever religious holiday you my celebrate.  To all, here’s to lots of love and laughter and a wonderful, prosperous and healthy 2019.  It’s an honor to be a part of this great community of writers and readers and friends.  God bless us, every one.
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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

36 thoughts on “Every Commercial Writer is His or Her Own Small Business

  1. Great post, John. In my humble opinion, you nailed it and did your friend and his wife a major favor. The only thing I would add is that how much they spend (or don’t) on editing should be tied directly to having self-confidence in the worth of their story.

    One other thing they can do if they’re locked into finding a traditional contract is to shop their manuscripts directly to publishers. When they get a nibble, they can then contact the agents highest up on their list, mention that a publisher has shown interest, and ask the agent to negotiate the contract. That, in my early experience, will almost certainly land them an agent.

    Of course, they can also go all-in, indie publish their works, and busy themselves with writing the next one, but I understand that’s a topic for another time.

    • Thanks, Harvey. There are, in fact, still publishers out there who accept over-the-transom submissions. Kensington, my publisher, happens to be one of them. The best vector for that strategy is to attend a conference where the editor is in attendance, and there score an invitation to submit your manuscript.

  2. Specifically, she wants to know, did you have to have your manuscripts professionally edited before submitting them to potential agents? This seems a very expensive route for something that might not be picked up by anyone.

    But that expense is an investment. If you’re not willing to invest in your own business, how committed are you?

    The hardest part about this whole thing is writing a great book. Thus, that should be where time and money are spent up front. A qualified developmental editor (one with experience in the biz and who is not a charlatan, of which there are more than a few out there) is worth the investment for a new writer. Being involved in a critique group and/or active with an outfit like SinC, is time well spent. So is a systematic and ongoing study of the craft.

    As for the marketing bit, fake them out. Set up one social media platform and give it some attention. This’ll show you’re at least in the game. But keep the main thing the main thing. Write an irresistible book so they can’t, er, resist.

    • Amen to that, Brother Bell. Too many people don’t understand that it is not the editor’s job to shape a writer’s brilliant idea into readable prose.

      I question the importance of a “platform” for first-time novelists. I can see a relevance for nonfiction, particularly if it is a specialized subject, but not for fiction.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out of Sisters in Crime. As a Board member of SinC, I’ll call out of Internet-based Guppies Chapter whose goal it is to help newbie authors flourish! Your friends can look at this Chapter on the SinC website and evaluate if it will help them along on their writing journey. There are of course local Chapters as well (50+ of them) that will give them the chance to find critique partners and advice in person.

  4. I am not an author. I have helped a few authors with promoting their books. I was shocked how little the publisher does and how much the author does. Get to know the managers of the book stores near you. YOU and your wife, are going to have to arrange book signings and other events with a book seller. That manager is going to be your best buddy.

  5. You gave your friend excellent advice, John. In addition to the advice in the comments, I would add building an online presence through blogging. Many houses want to see numbers, high follower counts for social media, blogs, and email lists.

    • Let’s talk about this, Sue. I think asking a new author to blog is an invitation to a stress-filled time suck with very bad ROI. How do they come up with fresh content 4 times a week? All of which takes huge bites out of writing time. I think the best time to start a blog is 2005. But it’s so hard to gain a following now.

      • Over the past year, I have asked different literary agents about this very subject, and they all say the same thing in various forms: social media and blog numbers do not equate to sales. Great books do. So focus on writing the next book and the next and the next and the next… As readership grows so will the numbers.

        • Christine, that’s true. Blog numbers and followers don’t necessarily equate to sales, but if you have no online presence, how do you expect to sell books? Even great books don’t sell themselves. Gone are the days where the publisher throws tons of marketing dollars at new voices, especially ones who are ghosts online.

          • I get what you are saying, Sue. And I agree, new writers are more apt to sell books if they have an internet presence. But I am more likely to follow someone new on Instagram or Twitter than start reading their blog. The blogs I follow are established and have been, I know what I’m getting from them. So in this case, I have to side with Jim (and it seems agents do too). If a writer doesn’t already have a blog following, then it’s probably too late to begin.

      • Jim,

        True, four times per week is wasting time better spent on writing. I’m referring more to slow-blogging. I rarely blogged more than once per week (now that my blog is established, I blog bi-monthly), but if I hadn’t blogged at all, I would never have sold more than a handful of copies of my debut. I think we need to take the time to build an audience, even while writing that first book. Group blogs aside, I also think the best way to blog is by focusing on subjects that relate to our books, and not the writing journey itself. For example, I blog about serial killers, forensic techniques, police procedures, and also share true crime stories. By doing so, I’m blogging for my ideal reader while helping other crime writers with their research. Win-win!

        • Sue,

          I just visited your website. Wow! Nicely done. Question for you: You say that you blog about serial killers and such. What would an unestablished, as-yet unpublished Lee Child blog about?

          • Thanks! Great question, John. I have friends who blog about weapons (they write about weapons for Writer’s Digest and their fiction is action-packed). Dr. Lyle concentrates on interesting medical facts (he writes medical thrillers), Lee Lofland focuses on police procedures and fun cop jargon & stories. Another friend blogs about death & dying (he was a forensic coroner and RCMP and his books are fictionalized accounts of his experience). Romantic suspense writers could lean toward real-life love triangles, or love gone wrong. Every writer needs to find their own niche.

        • Too bad there’s no way to run an A/B test on this. I still think the ROI for even a successful individual blog is not as great as the ROI on more actual production: books, novellas, short stories. I will say that if an author wants to go trad, a blog about subject matter (such as yours, Sue) could have marginal value to a publisher…but only if the writing is good! Which gets me right back to the “main thing.”

  6. Another thing for being an arts small business. Look for a chapter of the Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts near you. This is my local chapter: https://vlaa.org/, but there are chapters in most major cities. Right now, they are helping artists with signing up for the ACA. They have help with the legal and business side of making money with your art.

    Elaine, click on the credits link at the bottom of the page.

  7. I like the distinction between the book (product) and the author (brand.)

    That said, I think a good place for unknown authors (like myself) to focus is on craft. There are tons of materials out there… some free, some inexpensive, and still others a delight (like good critique groups.)

    I am nearing completion on a second novel. I probably have four or five others, anywhere from 25% to 50% complete, that have been abandoned, at least for now.

    Until I’ve completed at least three novels, and can say, from my own point of view and the feedback of objective sources, that there’s been substantial progress in the quality of the stories, there is little point in chasing too hard after an editor, agent and/or publishing house. In short, concentrate on craft. Maybe you’ll get lucky.

  8. Thank you for the excellent post, John. I have bookmarked it and taken notes.

    Happy Holidays.
    And, God Bless.

  9. For a newer author, I’d suggest writing teachers rather than editors. An editor, whether a copy editor or a structural/content editor, will change your work. A teacher will show you what works and how to spot things that don’t work. Classes will also give you a connection with others on the same journey, and that’s invaluable.

    Blogs, in most cases, are a waste of time. A writing blog doesn’t sell what you write. It’s only good if you teach writing. I have a ten-year-old, active writing blog, and I doubt I’ve sold one novel because of it. Newer writers tend to be cheap little snots who take what you offer and go their merry way without even checking out a book. The “I am a new writer and here’s my journey” blogs are boring and may attract relatives for a little while, but that’s about it. A blog about something else must be tied to what you intend to write. If, for example, you are a professional chef and your cozy detective is a chef, then you may have some possibility of promoting to your followers. Otherwise, spend your time educating yourself on writing and writing.

    • Marilynn, well said. This is the problem I have with most social media. When I look at my FB Friends List and my Linked-In Contacts List and Twitter Followers, I see people who are mostly trying to sell stuff, and are not interested in buying from others. As a marketing plan, I think it’s wasteful.

      The exception to this is my FB Fan Page, where the people who sign up are presumably fans of my work already, and by sharing with them, I deepen an existing bond.

      • The thing to remember about social media is the SOCIAL. It’s about engaging, not selling. I’ve been blogging since my first publisher said I needed a website and blog. But this was way back when — I think even before JSB’s 2005. Blogging has become part of my routine, and I look at it as doing something “writerly”.

        Another thing to remember is to do what you’re comfortable doing. I have my FB author page, a blog, and share funny stuff on Twitter, but that’s my comfort zone. Of course, if your audience is on one of the other platforms, you should probably be present there, too.

  10. Gee John.
    Where’s all the stuff about living like Richard Castle. You know, New York celeb parties, great apartment, gorgeous girlfriend (boyfriend), card games with other famous authors, and exciting adventures?
    It sounds like I have to study writing, sit in front of a computer for hours working on my story, drink gallons of coffee, and work my tail off. Where’s the fun in that?

  11. Great job John. I am a newbie myself, so that was a mountain of information well put.
    Thanks for your help.

  12. I agree that writing a great book should be the #1 priority. That said, what recommendations do you have about the best books on the craft of writing?
    Two books that had a huge impact on my first (and only) novel were:
    “Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell
    “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King

    Since it was my first attempt at commercial writing, I also hired a freelance editor. that was very much worth the money.

    I started building my platform after I got a contract with a small publisher.

    I sure would like to have a master list of the best books for learning the craft of writing, though.

  13. Pingback: Every Commercial Writer is His or Her Own Small Business | Loleta Abi

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