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?