Delete Naiveté From Your Writing Life

by James Scott Bell

So you want to be a published writer, eh? There’s a group for that. It’s called Everybody.

The group is wildly diverse. It includes traditional types and indie speculators. It is a spectrum that stretches from the pie-in-the-sky hopefuls all the way to the business hardnoses. Today I wish to address the left end of the spectrum, which I call the Naïve Zone. My hope is that you will make the decision to move your caboose to the right.

These thoughts were inspired by an article (which, coincidentally, Kris slash P.J. mentioned in her post of Nov. 5) titled “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” In it, author Heather Demetrios recounts what went wrong for her on her way to publishing riches. She admits up front that she didn’t understand the basics of the biz:

If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come.

The big mistake this author made (and which many an author over the years has also made) was to assume that a contract with a big advance translated automatically into a secure financial future.

How would my life be different if a fellow writer or someone in the industry had told me that the money I’d be receiving for my advances was absolutely no indication of what I could make on future book deals? What pain could I have avoided if they had advised me not to spend that money as though there would be more where that came from? I suspect I may have avoided a near nervous breakdown and not come so perilously close to financial ruin and creative burnout. But no one came forward.

That But no one came forward gives me pause. Authors bear the responsibility to figure out what the heck goes on—and changes—in this industry. An agent or colleague can help, but ultimately it’s on you to get educated.

So let’s talk about a few lessons to be drawn from this article.

The first is to understand this: A big advance is no guarantee of future results.

I really thought I had made it — forever, not just for a moment. Not for this one book deal. Forever. Otherwise, I reasoned, they would never have paid me such enormous sums. These publishers must be investing in me for the long run. I was one of their own.

Another lesson: Within the walls of the Forbidden City (traditional publishing) you are only “one of their own” so long as you make them money. The Forbidden City is not the family farm. It’s a big business with an unforgiving bottom line.

Next: the rules of personal financial management are not suspended when you get a contract.

After that second advance came through, I stepped into my dream life: I quit my day job to write full-time, moved to New York City, bought $15 cocktails, and learned (with astonishing speed) not worry about prices when ordering at a restaurant. I said yes to travel (often book research I wasn’t reimbursed for), concert tickets, new shoes, and finally being able to buy people the kind of presents I felt they deserved.

Here’s a tip: Do not quit your day job and do not move to New York City. Okay, that’s two tips.

Did I pay off my student loans? No, though I made a few large payments. Did I set money aside for retirement? No. My reasoning was that after the next book I sold, I’d take care of all that.

Bonus tip: Don’t go into student debt pursuing a degree in creative writing, folklore and mythology, theater, or anything with “lit” or “studies” appended to it.

Then there is the marketing part of the biz. Don’t expect your publisher to do the heavy lifting.

My publishers have never made so much as a bookmark for me (though twice they agreed to design them if I paid for the printing). If I wanted to go to a book festival or important industry conference out of town, I had to pay, unless the festival organizer covered the costs, which they rarely do. I couldn’t afford to do that, which meant I was unable to connect with librarians, booksellers, and industry professionals to amplify my books and, thus, my sales.

These days, the author has to do the lion’s share of the work on building a brand and marketing the work. You’ll need a website, an email list, some social media presence, and a whole lot of patience.

Kudos to Ms. Demetrios for opening up about her mistakes. To avoid them:

Learn the basics of a book contract. You can start here.

Learn the basics of book marketing. You can start here.

Learn the basics of managing money. You can start here.

Learn the basics of mental toughness. You can start here.

Well, we didn’t have time to go into the other option, self-publishing. Suffice to say naïveté is no excuse here, either. So before you take the plunge I suggest you read the articles posted on this page over at Joanna Penn’s site.

Speaking of plunges, and knowing that building a writing career of any sort takes years, which option is best for a writer long term? I’ll have some thoughts on that in a couple of weeks.

So what lessons have you learned, TKZers, that you can pass along to writers who enjoy wearing rose-colored glasses?

27 thoughts on “Delete Naiveté From Your Writing Life

  1. I’m definitely fully aware that the burden is on me to understand the biz of publishing–and it can be overwhelming. Sometimes I simply don’t understand some things. For example, what is the benefit of traditionally publishing at this point in time, given that the author, as in the example above, is the one who does most of the work? Other than possibly the physical distribution of print books, I’m not sure what makes traditional so attractive. And this author’s advance, from what I gather, is far from the norm so wasting a huge advance is not even a problem that a lot of traditional authors face.

    And tonight I started reading a book by Craig Martelle called “Successful Indie Author Pricing Strategies 2020.” It is not the main focus of the book, but in it, he provides a few examples of looking at the top 8 books in a category to examine pricing, and when you do that, you see that the traditionally published book prices are, in comparison, sky high compared to indie book pricing. I know we often toss out highly popular author names, such as James Patterson, who evidently command from some readers these high ebook prices, but wow, you’d have to be on a CEO’s salary to buy books in that price range!

    But the focus of Martelle’s book is to not undervalue your work and also learning that you have to be willing to experiment with your pricing and marketing strategies–and that it is a continuous job to manage the business side of publishing.

    In any case, I’m thankful to have places like TKZ to come & learn as much as I can about craft and the business of writing. Thanks to you and all our contributors for the insightful posts.

    • It’s an interesting time in the industry, BK. The early years of digital disruption were fraught with uncertainty and intemperate actions (remember Apple and the Big 6 colluding against Amazon?)

      Now there is a kind of stasis. Things have shaken out and the Big (now) 5 are managing to stay afloat on returns from their A-list authors, for which they can charge higher ebook prices. Can this model be sustained? Hmm…

  2. At the very valuable link on book contracts (a must-read for anyone still considering traditional publishing), I noted especially two key points.

    1. The “Grant of Right” section. Tradpubs require all rights for the life of the copyright. That alone should be enough to send writers running to self- (indie-) publishing.

    And the second key point just made me laugh: The “Copyright” section insists the copyright should be under the author’s name, not the publishers. But what possible difference does that make when the writer has signed away all rights for the life of the copyright? (grin) Yes, you wrote it, but you no longer own it.

    And as for agents (the “Agency” clause), would you give the guy who cuts your lawn once a week a 15% share of the deed to your home?

    Great post, Jim, and one very important for all writers to read. I’m sharing this one widely.

    • Thanks, Harvey. And suffice to say vis-a-vis grant of rights, authors should fight for a reversion clause tied to a minimum of royalty income per accounting period. The problem is that new authors don’t have a little thing called leverage…

      • Yes sir, exactly. In the “old days” of traditional publishing (as late as the late 1990s), contracts contained a reversion clause tied to a particular length of time. Unfortunately, today that doesn’t hold true because tradpubs know the value of the copyright on their spreadsheet. The only leverage (even new) authors have is to say “No” and walk away. But before they can do that they have to understand the value of their own work.

    • Most publishers die sooner than copyright ends. Plus, your ability to license your work in other media is tied to copyright. If you don’t license all your rights (movie, audio, media, etc.) to the publisher, those rights are yours to profit by.

  3. Excellent post. I was with a couple of “traditional” publishers, most of which are no longer around. I was fortunate that when things started falling apart with them, indie publishing was just starting up. Also fortunate that they had decent rights-reversion clauses. I figured I had nothing to lose by taking the books I’d already written and publishing them myself.
    At this point, at my age, I can’t see going the traditional route. Full disclaimer. I’m retired and we would still eat and have a place to live if I quit writing. I use my earnings 1) to pay for writing expenses, and 2) for little luxuries. The caveat on that one is don’t buy those little luxuries assuming the royalty money will continue to come in at the same rate it did on the good months. Bank it first, spend it later.

    • Also fortunate that they had decent rights-reversion clauses

      That’s so important, Terry, as I mention above to Harvey.

      And yes, for newer authors there is, I daresay, a bit of ageism in traditional publishing. It’s understandable from a biz perspective. Publishers want a long-term asset (ahem).

      Indie has no such qualms.

  4. Thanks for covering these necessary truths, Jim.

    If you are offered a contract by a traditional publisher, join the Authors Guild. Their excellent legal department reviews contracts as one benefit of your membership fee. They have reviewed several for me in great detail and alerted me to problems. As a result, I declined the contracts.

    Often writers are so thrilled to receive an offer, they sign in the heat of passion. When they wake up the next morning, they discover they climbed into bed with an ugly monster. Even worse, they married it and are now stuck.

  5. Last week I attended 20Books Vegas and there the writer label is ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘creative’. Nearly all of the 3-day conference was focused on the business side of publishing – audio, keywords, productivity, writing blurbs, foreign rights, etc. Two weeks prior to that, I was at my 4th and last Bouchercon where I listened to Trad authors shy away from marketing and business as though that was the dirty work of their publisher. Really people? Do you think that is how other small businesses behave? Yes, your publisher does some of that work for you, but shouldn’t you be asking questions? Naive is too mild an adjective.

    • Right on, Alec. All writers need to think like “authorpreneurs.” The great thing is that the info is out there, from conferences like the one you mention, to blogs and books. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Great reality-check post, Jim. Kudos to Heather Demetrios for her gutsy honesty & for the PJ Parrish (Kris) TKZ post. Thank you, Kris.

    My debut books sold in auction & with me having a commodities trader background, I pushed to sell more books before my first book came out. I had 6 books sold before I had 1 on the shelf and the 2nd base contract had a performance clause that would pay more tiered advances if I sold in larger numbers (which I did). My house had made me lead title, so they supported me in promotion. I spent money too. My first 3 books were in the black before they released. I was living a dream.

    But something happened that none of us anticipated. The market shifted to ebooks with big box stores pulling back on how they bought in advance. 30-40% of typical author print sales (at the time) dropped, which left publishers scrambling. Big box stores were no longer willing to try a new author. They only wanted known bestselling names. That put a target on my back. Not on my first 3 books (which were in the black), but the performance clause became problematic for my next 4 books after I hit those tiers fast.

    My editor had given my agent the tier levels when we negotiated the deal. But publishers were caught flat-footed with the surge of digital books, coupled with the decline of big box print sales. Publishers floundered as the market changed around them. As they cut loose mid-list authors, that drove writers into self-publishing. A really good development for the future of writing.

    Before I had a book on the shelf–and before the market dropped out for print–I worked with my financial planner & decided to quit my day job to write full time. I don’t regret that decision at all. I had already set up my finances prudently, in case everything dropped out. I moved back to my hometown to help my aging parents, which has been a great move that writing success allowed me to do. In hindsight, I would’ve liked a different publishing market, but I had realistically set up my financial assets to allow me to do anything. Despite the market downturn, I had a plan for that contingency.

    That’s where I see new authors making mistakes when they decide to quit their day job to write full time. They do not have a safety net for the worst case scenario.

    • Thanks for all that great info, Jordan. You are one of the smart ones and you negotiated great terms for the time. But as you note, stuff happens beyond our control. At the same time the Kindle came out and ebooks (low price) took off, our economy tanked. That double-whammy really put the kibosh on hardcover sales…which publishers had to take out on their midlist writers. Luckily for many midlisters, indie was becoming a real and profitable alternative–but only for those writers who took the time to get educated and motivated.

      • I feel that despite the hard lesson learned, my eyes were opened to the importance of equitable & reciprocal contract clauses–and the development of self-publishing made things better for writers. It took our blinders off & gave us options, which is empowering.

  7. Traditional publishing is a business. The sooner writers realize this other parts of the biz “should” make more sense. When you’re published with a small press, things are different. The contract usually sucks, but you’re treated as family in a sense. When the big guys offer you a contract, it’s a whole other world.

    Several weeks ago, the acquisitions editor at Rowman & Littlefield contacted me for cover ideas (not that I really have any say, but she went through the motions, which was nice). In that email she mentioned that Pretty Evil New England (my true crime book) had been turned into a series, with Pretty Evil New York and Pretty Evil Pennsylvania slated for release in 2021. I was so excited, because I assumed that I would automatically score the contracts for the next two books. Wrong! After leaving me hanging all weekend, she told me on Monday that she’d contracted two other authors (one from NY, one from PA). It made more sense money-wise, because then they wouldn’t have to pay travel expenses. And it does make sense, if you look at things from the publisher’s point of view.

    I guess that’s what I’m sayin’. For those desiring a trad-pub deal, you need to open your eyes to the reality of money vs. creativity.

    • Does that stop you from using the same idea (ie regionalized true crime)? Can you use the term “pretty evil” in your titles? I don’t see why not. Read your contract.

      Although I understand their business decision to save money on research travel, it seems short-sighted. YOU were the one to develop the initial proposal. I know what you put into it. They hijacked your idea & took it over. It doesn’t feel proprietary for them. Why couldn’t you continue with a series you developed?

      • Oh, absolutely. It actually benefits me, because they’re throwing more marketing dollars at my book since it’s the first in a series now. 🙂 Pretty Evil New England releases a year earlier than the others, too (Sept. 1, 2020).

        The initial idea was there’s, not mine. I developed the idea, but they approached me with the initial seed. I love you for defending me, Jordan. It’s cool, though. I’ve got something bigger in the works.

  8. Having just begun the path, I hardly have anything to contribute. But what I have, I’ll share. I’m sure most of you have already tucked these lessons away.

    1. I have learned to have no expectations. By that, I mean I work hard, do my best, and if I do that much, even if sales are not spectacular (which they haven’t been…yet), I don’t get all frothy about it. Each book released “learns me something.”

    2. Which brings me to the next. Learn, learn, learn. Listen to others who know whereof they speak. Study marketing and business experts. Incorporate into your schedule and business plan what works for you. Take advantage of their knowledge. Never stop learning. Get up in the morning ready to learn. I hope to go to my grave still learning stuff. Read, read, read. Multiple genres. I learned that right here at TKZ from reading posts from you. So, I have branched out from my rather narrow genre preference for spy/espionage thrillers. And, by gum, I’m enjoying it!

    3. Think of myself as an author, because I am-even if I’m not a Stephen King or a Francine Rivers or a James Scott Bell. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that mindset, but I must, otherwise I’ll quit the best work I’ve ever enjoyed. When meeting new people, I always try to introduce myself as an author. The more times I say it, the more I believe it.

    4. And I’m sure everyone already knows this lesson: pay an expert for author stuff at which you’re not an expert. I’m always amazed when I talk to someone who has written a book, or who is working on a book, and when I ask who their editor is or their cover designer I hear crickets. Most, if not all, successful people employ the experts.

    5. Set a schedule. Sentences usually don’t just happen (it’s cool when they do, though!). I retired from my day J.O.B. this year, and I’d already learned from others how important it is to still get up at the same time and stick to a work schedule just as if my supervisor lurked around the corner in my kitchen.

    6. As above from JSB, live within your means, even if you get a juicy-sounding contract. Which I haven’t yet. But I’m so grateful for having learned that lesson from my dear father. No matter whether you’re a New York Times best-selling author, a waitress, a student, or a member of the U.S. Congress, it’s a good plan. (Although those Congress people usually live within my means! Sorry…)

    I’m sure I’ve missed some other lessons from my 4 year author journey, but I’m also sure I’ve rambled on long enough. Thanks for all you do, TKZers. You’ve learned me lots. I always mention this website whenever I can to my fellow newbies.

    • Deb, great thoughts! You’ve nailed the biggies. And I’m glad your #1 is I have learned to have no expectations. I’m a fan of Stoic wisdom, and managing expectations was one of their greatest keys to happiness. When something good does happens, it’s frosting on the cake of life!

  9. Lesson One: Publishers, editors, and agents are not your friends. None of them are truly on your side because their bottom line and their job is more important than yours. An agent, for example, will toss you under the bus to get better terms with the same publisher for their bestselling author. (Yes, this happens. One agent, for example, accepted worse than boilerplate terms for her mid-list category romance authors for years before authors wised up.) Only YOU care enough about you to protect yourself, and that requires knowledge. Network with other writers, join organizations like RWA which emphasize writing business education, and ASK QUESTIONS! Sites like this have pro writers who understand the business. I’m also happy to answer questions or send you to a place where you can find those answers. Here are a few sites:

    Writer Beware (crooked publisher warnings) :

    Business Musings ((Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s writing business blog)

    Lesson Two: Your dreams of publishing are not the same as the truth of publishing. Years ago, a new publisher attracted a number of writers, including me, but before I signed a contract, I talked with a number of their writers and figured out the publisher was an idiot and a scam artist. I left, and I tried to convince some of those who remained to leave. Some didn’t. One who was a friend claimed I was trying to destroy her dream of being published. That dream turned into a nightmare for her, and she never wrote again. Traditional publishing is also the dream for many, but the current publishing climate has turned most of their contracts into onerous traps that take a majority of your rights, your publishing future, and your money. You need to take a long, hard look to decide whether that dream isn’t a nightmare.

  10. I’ve been looking at the business side of publishing lately since I attended a talk with a teen-romance author over on this side of the ditch. It was about branding, marketing, and being an authorpreneur. I came away with a few take-aways.

    One- don’t have any expectations. Publishers will only do so much for you; you have to get out there and do the work on social media, get your author swag, go to the conferences, give talks, attend talks, network. I’m not sure how she does all this in a given work week.

    Two- writing is hard, but marketing is harder if you’re not set up for it. She writes in the mornings, then marketing and business take up her afternoons and evenings. Build the website, get the social media pages, get a blog going, guest blog. Caveat is to pace yourself and set the routines up. Burn-out is very real.

    Three- “standard contracts” are anything but standard. Read, read, read again, and then get a lawyer to read over it for you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if you’re a first-timer.

    Four- Don’t make fun of other authors. You never know what fans are in the audience. If someone asks about X-author and they’re not your cup of tea, just say that you haven’t read any of their work. Don’t be nasty. Fans can be rabid defenders- and on social media, anything goes.

    Five- trends are just that. Trends. Classics really never go out of style. By the time you find out about a trend, it’s generally too late.

    But, looking through the post and the comments, there’s a lot of good advice I hadn’t considered. Thanks, y’all. It’s why I love this blog- I’m always learning something.

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