Thursday, August 22, 2019

How I Stay Grounded: 7 Realities of Traditional Publishing

By Susan Dennard, @stdennard

Part of The Writer’s Life Series

JH: There’s a veil of mystery surrounding publishing, which can make it hard for new authors (and soon to be authors) to know how their careers are doing. Susan Dennard visits the lecture hall today to offer a candid and close look at the realities of traditional publishing. And definitely check out her article links for more eye-opening reveals.

Susan Dennard has come a long way from small-town Georgia. Working in marine biology, she got to travel the world—six out of seven continents, to be exact (she’ll get to you yet, Asia!)—before she settled down as a full-time novelist and writing instructor.

She is the author of the Something Strange and Deadly series, as well as the New York Times bestselling Witchlands series, and she also hosts the popular newsletter for writers, the Misfits & Daydreamers. When not writing, she can be found slaying darkspawn (on her PS4) or earning bruises at the dojo.

She lives in the Midwestern US with her French husband, two spoiled dogs, and two grouchy cats.

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Take it away Susan…

One of the things I wanted most when I first entered the traditional publishing world a decade ago was more behind-the-scenes glimpses. I could find a million resources on query letters or plot points, but no one talked about what it felt like to have a book perform badly. Or to have no clue what your publisher was actually doing over there in Ye Olde New York.

And as much as I wanted a book deal to be the answer to my debt, my wounded psyche, and the general solution to All My Problems...I was smart enough to know that it probably wouldn't be.

And in hindsight, I see why people don't often discuss the harder realities of publishing publicly. We all know how very lucky we are to have a book deal, and no one wants to seem ungrateful.

Plus, just as no one can fully understand the difficulties or pains of in vitro fertilization (which I have been doing for the last 1.5 years) except other women who've ridden that train, only authors with a book deal can fully understand the unique difficulties and pains of traditional publishing.

No matter how much I write about it, you won’t fully get it until you’re here.

NEVERTHELESS—and it's a big "nevertheless"—I know I would have been a lot happier and healthier if I'd been just a little bit prepared. And I have absolutely no doubt I’d have been happier and healthier to know all my experiences and feelings were NORMAL once I was on the other side.

Which is why I'm going to do my best to prepare you and/or help normalize your emotions (if you’re already there).

So here’s what I wish I had known before my book came out, and what I think it is so important to remember when you’re finding your sanity fraying:

1. You will probably not get rich.

While some advances can be pretty substantial, most are not.

Plus, once you remove the 15% from agency fees and the 30% for US taxes…Oof. You’re not left with much.

Oh, and don’t forget health insurance! Buying health insurance on your own is a beast of an expense, my friends.

(If you want to read a full breakdown of what my actual advances looked like year to year, head here.)

Plus, due to the extremely wonky and unreliable payment schedule, you won’t be getting money often…and each check will be progressively smaller than the last. (Unless you earn out your advance. But more on that in the link above.)

With the money being less than you might think and unreliable, I always—ALWAYS—tell debut authors to keep their day jobs. I regret leaving mine because once I was gone from the scientific world, it was impossible to get back in. And the writing did not sustain me as I’d naively thought it would.

(Here's more on 5 Essential Truths You Need to Know about The Path to Publication)

2. You will probably not be a bestseller (ever).

I know, I know. It’s kinda crappy for me, a bestseller, to say this, but it is the reality. I got lucky—just like all bestsellers.

And LUCK is the key word here. I don’t care how hard you work or how good your book is, you cannot account for good luck and good timing.

Yes, having a great book and hard work helps, but they won’t guarantee anything.

I thought my first book, Something Strange & Deadly, was great. I poured all my soul into writing it and promoting it. And you know what? That didn’t make a lick of a difference in the end.

That book tanked. My career tanked. My agent and I thought I would never sell again. And quite frankly, it is a wonder that HarperCollins even finished publishing the entire series (more luck!). Most series with sales like mine would have been cancelled.

So yeah, quitting my day job was a mistake. But I didn’t know this until my book actually hit shelves 2 years after I sold it…and 2 years after I’d left academia.

3. You will not sell millions of copies.

In fact, I can say with 99.999% certainty that you will not sell hundreds of thousands of copies either. You will most likely never even sell tens of thousands. Or possibly even thousands.

Most books are lucky to sell a few hundred copies. And that’s okay! That is NORMAL. Epic sales are not the norm; bestsellers are not the norm.

So if you find yourself in a similar boat to the one that I was once in (with an underperforming book, a toxic track record, and the certainty that you were all alone in your failure), don’t panic. Your career isn’t over. On the contrary, you’re going through what most authors in traditional publishing go through.

You are not alone, okay? This is normal and more common than not.

(Here's more on 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Selling My First Book)

4. Your publisher will not send you on tour.

My first book tour was entirely self-funded. ALL of the events I attended my first 4 years were self-funded, and even today, many of my events are paid for from my pocket.

Publishers have limited money. They will only tour the authors they are pushing hard (see #6 about Chosen Ones), and tours are extremely expensive. Even for Big Fancy Authors, the book sales almost never earn back the money spent on the tour. The tour is really just there for the optics and the exposure.

So don’t take it personally if you don’t get sent anywhere. Instead, start budgeting your own bucks and researching the most effective conventions, festivals, and events to attend.

5. You will rarely be kept in the loop of what's actually happening.

This varies publisher to publisher. My first publisher told me absolutely nothing about what was happening behind the scenes. My current publisher is much more transparent (but there are still a thousand things I will never know about).

For example, I have learned every single one of my release dates from Amazon. My editor doesn’t even always know before the information is fed into the Amazon system. Is it annoying to have readers tweet me my book is up for preorder and coming out in January? Yeah, but that’s the publishing life. You get over it real fast.

And honestly, it’s not a bad thing to be “out of the know.” Your publisher has a plan for you. It’s dependent on a lot of things outside of your control (remember luck and timing?), and nothing you do is likely to change that plan. There are budgets to consider as well as other books/authors and long term business plans—not to mention, the big retailers have a say in everything.

So knowing what your publisher plans to do in terms of marketing or store buy-ins…well, sometimes ignorance is bliss. Your job is to focus on writing books, so focus on writing books.

And look, even if you’re the kind of person who wants to know everything, that doesn’t matter. You aren’t going to, and it’s better to accept that now. Especially because pestering your publisher for more information can have a negative impact.

Trust your agent to know what needs to be known; let your agent do all the information-gathering; and work on your next book.

(Here's more on Writers: Be Prepared to Be Published)

6. No one cares about your book as much as you do.

Like I said before, publishers have a million things they’re factoring. Your book is one of many. On the day my debut novel released, my imprint (so not even the whole publisher!) had 16 other titles coming out.

The publishers simply cannot focus on all those books and give them all the love that I know we feel we deserve. It doesn’t mean the people at the publisher hate your book; it doesn’t mean they aren’t working hard. They 100% are (and for terrible pay, at that).

But at the end of the day, money has to go into the books they think will make the most back. That means ~1-3 titles become the Chosen Ones each season and get all the push.

Don’t take it personally if you’re not a Chosen One.

And if you ARE a Chosen One, then be grateful!! That is a privilege that might not come again, so enjoy it while it lasts. (But also, see #2. Just because a book has all the push doesn’t mean it will actually break out and sell a ton of copies. The odds are undoubtedly higher, but you can’t make readers buy something or love it. Again, luck and timing!)

7. You have absolutely no control over anything except the words on the page.

I feel like this is pretty obvious after everything I’ve said so far, but it’s worth repeating again and again and again.

You cannot make an agent represent you. You cannot make a publisher publish your book. You cannot make them promote or push your book. You cannot make bookstores or libraries stock your book. You cannot make readers buy it. And you cannot make readers enjoy it.

None of those things—which are basically everything—are in your control. The one thing you CAN do is write a damned good book, turn it in to you editor on time, and then write a damned good follow up. On and on and on.

And when the going gets tough, just remember why you’re doing this. You love writing. You love sharing stories. 90% of my daily job isn’t fun, but boy is that other 10% amazing! It makes all the heartache and stress, all the deadlines and self-promo totally worth it.

And look: this life isn’t for everyone. And that is OKAY. I repeat: it is okay!!!! Some people write one book and leave. Some people write ten and leave. There are more stable jobs out there (ones with health insurance too!), and there’s no right or wrong reason to decide that the instability and lack of control aren’t for you.

At the end of the day, though, remember: you’re not alone.

Now get writing!

About The Witchlands

For the first time, experience the first three volumes of Susan Dennard's New York Times bestselling Witchlands series--Truthwitch, Windwitch, and Bloodwitch--now together in the Witchlands Hard Cover Boxed Set.

Magic. Adventure. Romance. War. ... Welcome to the Witchlands.

On a continent ruled by three empires, many people are born with a “witchery”, a magical skill that sets them apart from others. Some command the wind, some the water, some fire, some metal. And some can master the truth, or time, or even death itself.

Now, as war breaks loose and magic is dying, two young women--a Truthwitch and a Threadwitch--may hold the key to a centuries old prophecy that could control the world...if they can survive.

"Worldbuilding after my own heart. It’s so good it’s intimidating."―Victoria Aveyard, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Red Queen

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