Breaking In, Breaking Out, Dropping Out

I'm routinely asked "How do I break into writing?" by hopeful, starry eyed new writers.  It is remarkably hard to answer -- partly because the field has changed so much since I first broke in, and partly because it is in the midst of a change, from one state to the other and, like all things in flux, one can only guess at its final shape.

However, because I was once a hopeful, starry eyed new writer, I decided to attempt an answer.  The result looks a lot like one of those pick-an-adventure books from the seventies.

There are a few things you must understand about publishing right now and which are non-debatable:

  1. No one knows anything.
  2. Publishers and Agents are in trouble, mostly because they’re avoiding making necessary changes.
  3. The old model of “it’s not so much what you write but what you are that will determine your success” is still very much in place.
  4. Most publishers are not most writers’ friends.

Given this, this is the best advice I can give:

1- In most cases, don’t get an agent.  They don’t have the power they used to in the field, and they’re getting desperate and a little insane.

1.a. - I have a good friend who is an agent, and I MIGHT still sign with him if I were a newbie.  I can’t imagine him doing anything business-insane.  OTOH I don’t believe he has that much pull.  No agent does.  Even the "powerhouses."

1. b. - If you’re writing nonfiction this might be different.  I don’t know that it is (and feel free to chime in any of you who do) but I’ve had the impression it might be.  If your agent is THE field expert on eighteenth century furniture and represents every author who writes about it, and you’re writing about it, it might be a good thing to have him represent you.  It will give publishers an assurance you are the real article and know what you’re talking about.

2 - If you think you have a property and/or you’re the type of person who thinks he/she can do well in traditional publishing, send queries out to publishing houses.  Yes, the old “no unsolicited submissions” is still in place, but I understand it’s honored more in the breach.  At any rate, if you go to a writers conference or a small sf con in, say, NYC, and pitch to the editor who then says to send it in, your submission is no longer unsolicited.

2.a. If you sell read that contract like a hawk.  You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff being done.

2.b. Make them cross your palm with silver.  When I broke in I heard the lowest advance for which they promote was 25k.  G-d knows what it is now.  (This is not always true, though, if you’ve become friends with an editor, even a minor one, you might get promotion for your 4k book.)

2.c. Be prepared to promote, and be aware this only REALLY works if you have a “platform” that’s at least tangentially related to your book.  Also, if you don’t have kids or a real life.  Even my “blog tour” for DST ate most of a year and was responsible for how late the second book in that is in coming out.  Not complaining.  Without it, there might NOT be a second book.  OTOH it still ate a whole year.

2. d.  Did I SAY read that contract like a hawk?  Yeah, hire an IP attorney, too.  Because one of the things that could well happen is your house going under -- see where everything is in flux -- and you don’t want your book caught in that.

3 - You don’t meet or aren’t willing to follow the rules in 2 -- to be honest, I was never really able to, both by personality and because when I broke in I had very small children, so a lot of cons, and a lot of publicity were out of the question -- consider self-publishing.  I say this with all the trepidation of a traditionally published author who still is afraid people will rush into publication with books they’ll be sorry they put out.

3.a - Don’t promote unless you want to.  Unknowns are making more in ebooks than I ever made in my career.

3.b. - Write.  More.  Furiously.  (This does seem to be something that DOES work in ebooks.)

3.c. - when you have ten books written, take the first one free for a month or so.

3.d. - There are no guarantees, but it’s at least as good a chance as in trad publishing and maybe better for the type of writer who “just wants to write.”

3. e - Before you go out half-cocked, research how to do this, so both your formatting and your covers look as good as possible.  This might involve just looking at what’s out there, or taking a workshop, or whatever.

4 - Go with a reputable, small, indie publisher.

4.a. - This is only apposite if you are either too nervous to go it on your own and/or you are writing in a niche -- like erotica, say -- that some small publisher has made their own.  If they have fans, it will rub off on you.

4.b. - Before you do it, research the market and what are reasonable terms.

4. c - Before you do it, research the house.

4. d - get an IP attorney to look over the contract.  Even if the house is reputable, they might have some snags in there that even they aren’t aware of.  And if they go under, you want to be protected.

Now, where I stand, I’m doing both.  I am still writing for the traditional market and will do so for one house as long as they want me (debts you can’t pay are debts you can’t pay) and for the others if I think it suits my marketing plan, though some of these might be loss leaders.  However, I’m also indie-publishing.

For a more complete version of this article, including my own experiences in the wonderful world of publishing, look here