Eighteen years ago this month, I received a call from an editor at Tor Books asking me if I could please send his way all the completed chapters and outlines of what would become my first published novel, Children of Amarid. It took a while to get the contract settled, another fourteen months passed before I turned in the completed first draft of the book, and it took two years after that (revisions, polishing, production issues) to get the book out in stores. But still, this is the eighteenth anniversary of what I think of as the beginning of my writing career.
In the time since, I have published eleven more books and several short stories. I have two more books in production and several others written and still looking for a home. My career has seen high points, low points and everything in between, and I have learned a lot about the industry along the way. A lot of what I’ve learned has surprised me, and I thought it might be illustrative to look at the five things that have surprised me most about being a published author. Perhaps this will help you address some of your pre-conceived notions. Or maybe you’ll just enjoy seeing how foolish and naive I was when I started out. And so, in particular order:
1) Let’s start with one lesson that was in many ways the most painful I learned along the way. I had no idea that the production process for a novel was so involved and so lengthy. I should probably point out that not every novel is in production for two years as my first one was. That book needed a lot of work. And because I was a newbie with no backlist, no previous books to promote with the new release, Tor felt comfortable pushing my book back in the schedule a couple of times. But the fact remains that a book handed in to a traditional publisher on, say, March 5, 2012, might not be released until the spring of 2013. Some publishers are faster than others; Tor can be fairly deliberate with their schedule. It’s important to remember, though, that a lot has to happen in the production process. The developmental edit, the copyedit, the proofing of the galleys. Plus, promotion needs some lead time, as does the art department. Lag times of a year or more are not at all uncommon. Why was this painful for me? Well, because my father was alive when I got the contract, and I kept on telling him that the book would be out soon. But it was pushed back time and again, and he died a few months before the book was finally published. He never saw any of my work in print.
2) Promotion for books by midlist authors is limited, to say the least. I figured before I sold my first novel that there would be a big publicity push when my book came out, because, you know, it was a book and I wrote it. But publicity for most authors consists of a couple of advertisements in trade magazines and journals, a few advanced reader copies sent to reviewers, and maybe some help with getting the word out about signings, although not with arranging the signings themselves. Also, kind of a corollary to this one, the better known an author is, the better the book is expected to do, the MORE publicity dollars that book gets. It seems a bit counter intuitive, I know. I mean, Stephen King’s new book doesn’t need publicity nearly as much as mine does. But it’s a return-on-investment thing. The big names get the big bucks; the small names, not so much.
3) Like so many people, I thought writers made more money that we actually do. When I imagined selling my first book, I had in mind what my first advance would be. I won’t tell you what that amount was, because it really is embarrassing to admit. What I will tell you is that I actually received $9,000.00 for my first book. I now know that was a lot for a first novel. At the time, though, it was way, way below what I expected. But I was certain that I would get a bigger advance for my second book. I didn’t. If I had understood the business, I would have known not to expect more. I signed that second contract before we had sales numbers on book I. No way was Tor going to commit more money to me without any evidence to support such a move. I didn’t understand that. Nor did I understand “Reserves Against Returns” an accounting device publishers use as a hedge against paying out royalties on books that have shipped but might yet be returned by booksellers. So I thought I would receive royalty money about a year and half before I actually did. In short, I thought this was a far more lucrative business than it turned out to be. Good thing I love to write as much as I do…
4) The trajectory of even a successful writing career is not a straight line climbing ever upward. Yeah, this one is probably pretty obvious, but I had believed — or maybe just hoped — that my career would climb and climb and climb, that every new series would do better than the last and that every new book would outperform its predecessor. That’s not how it works, sadly. My career has been a roller coaster, and so has that of nearly every writer I know. Sure, some writers are fortunate enough to enjoy more and more success with every new project, but I can’t name any off the top of my head, and I am certain that they are the exceptions to the rule.
5) This is sort of related to number 4, and I’m sure you’ve heard us talk about this one before: A professional writer can never relax. Okay maybe Rowling can. And Grisham and King and maybe George R.R. Martin. But again, the exceptions prove the rule. For most of us, the fear of our careers tanking never, ever goes away. A writer can only be as secure as his or her last sales figures. These days, one unsuccessful book can put a career in jeopardy; two can kill it altogether. I figured after I sold my second book and received an award for that first series that my career was secure forever. I was wrong. Today I know better, and I don’t take anything for granted.
As I say at the end of number 3, I love what I do. And you’ve heard us say before that if you’re going to write professionally, you should love it, too. Because, as all these surprises indicate, this is tough business. Even with all that I’ve learned over the past 18 years, I love writing now every bit as much as I did then. Maybe more. Because after all that time, I’m still working at it, still struggling with disappointments, still reveling in the occasional successes. It is a great career path. Just as I expected it would be.
What about you? What things do you expect? What questions do you have about the business?David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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