Tuesday, September 29, 2009


One commenter on this site chided me for not having a published book out yet, despite that I've written three good novels. I doubt that person has seriously tried to get a book published, or they'd know just how difficult it is. What follows is not whining or complaining of how hard it is, but it's information for those of you dreaming of riches when you see the “Twilight” books stacked up in the stores, and imagining how easily you'll get six-figure advances for ideas that pop into your head.

Not too long ago, large publishing houses had editors that knew good books, liked good books, and were willing to take a chance and even lose money on a good book, knowing it wouldn't sell right off, but it needed to be out there.

Then greed happened. The speculators grabbed publishing houses, merging them into bigger and bigger conglomerates, figuring bigger was better. And the industry took a nose dive. Because books aren't like other products. You can't move them like widgets, and you can't accurately predict which will sell and which won't. Books are full of ideas, and often it takes time for ideas to percolate through society. But speculators want fast return, and they have no patience for authors building a readership over the years.

Big publishing houses don't want to publish anything which won't make them money. If a prospective book doesn't fit into an easily marketable niche, it doesn't stand a chance. They want safe, secure, predictable.

And yet the bookstores are flooded with substandard material. Insert your favorite examples here. Thousands of books get published every year. But the sad fact is, 96% won't sell more than a couple thousand copies. 98% won't break the 5000 mark. Two books out of every hundred make any kind of sale. And they're usually the blockbusters from the handful of sellable best-seller names, or some new celebrity or fad book.

There are fewer than 500 people in the United States making a living writing fiction. The rest of us have to earn our bread with other labor. But that takes time away from writing. And then there's the marketing. Without a name or a connection, you have a hard road ahead. You have to create and polish a query letter, prepare an exciting synopsis, get a list of reputable agents, shoot out queries, and hope for the best. You may hear back from one in three, a good return. It takes time and energy, all of which could be better spent writing more books.

And then the lucky day arrives, some agent likes your query. So you send some sample chapters. And wait. And wait. And wait. One day, months or years later, you finally get the agent interested in your work. So you bat a contract back and forth, finally sign, and later the agent sends it off to publishers. More time elapses, Glaciers melt, empires rise and fall, and finally some publisher agrees that the book is good.

So you sign more contracts and wait for your riches. You receive the requested edits, which can take weeks, and may change your darling into something unrecognizable. You receive the first payment, minus 15%, for your work, which amounts to several hundred dollars. There won't be much more for a first book. And they'll publish a few thousand copies, which will sit there unless you devote your life (outside of work, remember) to selling it. If your book doesn't take off, publishers won't want to publish your next one.

So why do we do it, when only a damn fool would undertake such a hopeless, thankless life's work? Because we have to. We writers hear voices in our head, have conversations with people that aren't there, and live worlds within worlds, while we get through this one. We are the talesmiths of old, the ones by the campfire giving meaning to our existence. If you think that's grandiose, imagine a world without books and writers. It would be a sterile place indeed. No dreams, no history, and no purpose. Just daily drudgery.

So it takes time. You need the stubbornness and determination of an Arkansas mule, and a hide about as thick, to withstand the criticism you'll get. Your reward will be a bucket of thistles, or maybe a pat on the back. But you do it anyway, no matter how long it takes, or what you get out of it. Real writers have to write.

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