The Sobering Reality of the Childhood Dream
Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at 8:04 AM
Writer's Cramp in career, publishing industry, taking the leap, the book business

I’ve been reading quite a lot about writing and publishing and getting an agent and all the ins and outs of the business for quite some time now, and let me tell you, it’s sobering to learn about the industry. Any romantic notions you have of writing your book, getting accepted, and then you quit your day job and write for a living die a swift and messy death as soon as you start learning about the industry.

You think the work ends after you’ve written the book, suffered through revision after endless revision and are ready to send it off?

Nope. Then you start the work of finding an agent*, which requires a lot of research. The information about agents and the querying process takes a not insignificant amount of time and effort. You’re (understandably) expected to do your research to learn not just the industry, but the vagaries of the particular part of the industry you’re hoping to be published in (especially true in genre writing). But finally, you’ve compiled a nice list of potential agents. The rest is pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

Nope. Once you find agents (and verified that they represent the type of book you’ve written), you then need to find out whether they’re accepting unsolicited submissions and whether they’re currently accepting submissions. Then you need to make very careful note of each agent’s submission guidelines, because they’re all different and making a mistake can mean the difference between getting your query read and getting it summarily binned. Some want query letters only, some request queries with the first five pages of your story, some the first chapter, some the first fifty pages. Some request a synopsis, which itself can vary in length and style. You submit to agent after agent, carefully following each individual submission guideline, hoping to find one to accept you. And miracle of miracles, an agent offers to represent you! They work with you on yet more revisions, and then they start shopping you around. Whew! It was a lot of work to get this far, but now you’ve got an agent so you can relax and focus on writing your next book, right?

Nope. They submit to publishers over and over and if you’re lucky, an editor agrees to take a chance on you. After having pitched it to their editorial session, of course, and hopefully not gotten shot down in the meeting. Then yet more revisions and drafts. *(Unless you’re submitting to a house that accepts unagented submissions, in which case you do that work while you’re trying to find an agent, but the steps are all the same.) You might spend months working on revisions, and in the meantime, getting lost in the shuffle of the publishing list for that year or the next. But hopefully at some point, you’re nearing the end of final edits and work begins on cover art, marketing plan, etc. You have no say in the cover art, book size/layout/type, and depending on the publishing house you’re contracted with, little to no say in marketing. If they’ve devoted any budget to marketing. Most books aren’t allotted any (again, depending on publishing house…smaller houses give more marketing push because they can’t afford to have as many “flops”, but that also means they can offer less and can take less). But at least now you’re done, right?

Nope, just getting started. You’re expected to self-market, and cross-market, and any other kind of marketing you can do to promote your book. You may be the only one doing marketing for your book (see above). You should have a blog and a website now — and really, should’ve had one when you were shopping agents — but you’ll want to be careful, because you can’t step on the toes of your publisher’s marketing. Which you may not be told what they’re doing. It’s hard to get anyone on the phone, and the marketing people don’t take authors’ calls. And any marketing you do is on your own dime, including attending conventions and symposiums. Which you’re encouraged to do, to increase your chances of success. (Of course, if you’re shy and introverted — most writers are — this can present something of a problem.) But surely, by this point, with all your hard work, you’re done, right? You’ve at least made some money, right?

Nope aaaaand nope. You’re expected to keep producing, because most publishing houses aren’t going to invest in a one-shot deal. So you should have something already going by the time they accept that first work, and somewhere in the midst of all that other work up there — and your day job, more on that in a minute — you’re supposed to be writing, writing writing. You need to be able to demonstrate that you’re a producer.

Yeah, and don’t quit your day job. Even a moderately successful book won’t pay enough to cover your bills and of course you still need insurance. And obviously to actually do your day job, you have to, you know, be there. So any writing-related activities have to be done in your spare time, just as the first book you wrote was, except then you were only writing a book, not writing a book and promoting another one. So, you know.

Pretty sobering post here about what you can realistically expect to make on a book. He comes up with a figure of about $13,000 paid out over 8 years, if all goes well, and that seems to match everything I’ve read on this subject. I was already prepared for that number, so it didn’t depress me as much as the timeline did. Eight years. I’ve been reading lots of author, editor, and agent blogs, so I’ve seen timelines of a couple of years, too. But ballpark, I’d say 4 to 5 years is probably normative.

The reality is that if I’m ever able to quit my job to write full-time, it’ll only be because we’ve pared down our expenses to an absolutely minimum and The Prince makes enough to support both of us. Despite grandiose ideas of bestsellers and movie rights, I will probably never make enough money on my writing to live on it.

I say this not out of depression or discouragement, but just to say this is what it is. If I’m ever lucky enough to be published, that in itself is going to be the big accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not going to go beyond that. In all likelihood, any subsequent books I write won’t be published. I’ll still write them, and I’ll still share them. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m shooting for my one chance and if nothing else comes of it, at least I did it once.

[I originally wrote and shared this post in a different forum a few years ago. The Neil Gaiman quote got me thinking about it again, so I thought I’d share it here. It has been slightly edited from the original.]

Article originally appeared on B. Jenne' Hall: writing and other pursuits (
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