The Writing Business
44) So, once you’re sure your writing is as good as it can be, you have to work out where to submit it. How can you distinguish between the good and the bad agents and publishers?
45) Writers need agents who will consistently get them the best deal for their books.
a) So if they have no track-record, how can you be sure they’ll be able to do that?
b) Experience. A good agent has sold books / writers you’ve heard of.
c) The same goes for publishers: they’ve published books you’ve heard of, which are on the shelves in bookshops across the country.
d) Neither agenting nor publishing are entry-level occupations.
e) Let other writers take risk their work on start-up businesses if they must: protect your own interests and make those businesses prove themselves before you submit.
46) The exception to this is if someone has extensive publishing and sets up on their own. But still: be very careful.
47) If you can’t find an agent, or want to work without one, how can you find yourself a good publisher?
a) Submit to Penguin, which is accepting unagented submissions until October of this year.
b) Write non-fiction, which is usually much easier to place than fiction (and you can sell it without having written the whole thing, which is nice) .
c) If their books aren’t on the shelves in bookshops all over the country, how many of your books do you expect them to sell?
d) Smaller presses often accept unagented writers.
e) This does not mean that they have lower standards than the big houses—often the opposite is true, as they’re more exposed to risk.
48) Smaller publishers often work more closely with their writers: it’s a more intimate experience.
49) If it goes wrong, it can therefore be more hurtful: but when it goes well it’s fabulous.
50) QUESTION: How can you tell if a publisher is legitimate?
a) You work out who they’re selling to.
b) If publishers’ websites focus on selling their services to writers, rather than on selling books to readers, chances are they’re a vanity press.
51) Do not trust what they tell you about themselves! Vanity publishers rarely admit to their true nature.
52) Do not assume The Internet is right! Misinformation abounds, and mainstream publishing is barely aware that most of it exists.
53) Few mainstream publishing people blog etc, whereas lots of self-publishers and vanity publishers do, so there’s a huge imbalance in the amount of information available, and in the validity of the opinions expressed.
54) Why is vanity publishing so bad?
a) Because your book won’t get proper distribution and so is very unlikely to find its readers.
b) It’s usually far more expensive than self-publishing.
c) You’re highly unlikely to get a professional-looking book, or decent editing, design or typesetting.
d) I have never seen a properly-produced book from a vanity press.
55) QUESTION: what’s the difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing?
56) Vanity publishing and self-publishing are beginning to overlap now, so the real question is now, “Is this route to publication in the writer’s best interests?” The answer is very often NO.
57) QUESTION: when is self-publishing a good choice for a writer?
a) When the writer has a platform which they can use to sell their books.
b) When the writer is excellent at self-promotion and has the time and money to spend on it.
c) Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader is an excellent example of self-publishing success: but she spent over $100,000 publishing and promoting her book before signing with a mainstream publisher and is an exception. Few self-publishers achieve her sort of success.
58) There doesn’t have to be an either/or decision about mainstream and self-publishing, though: some established writers now self-publish their backlist as those rights revert, and have had success (although often those successes are exaggerated—be wary!) .
59) Writing isn’t an instant career: it usually takes five or more solid book sales PLUS subsidiary sales before you have a hope of quitting your day-job.
60) For most writers, writing books is not enough. Articles, teaching, editing are all possible—teaching and editing only once you have some success.
61) Maximise your income by diversifying, then make the most of that income by not spending your money foolishly—for example, by self-publishing books you have no hope of selling.
62) However you decide to publish, be professional—especially online.
a) The internet is public, uncontrollable, and lasts a long time.
b) If you routinely write blog articles about how cynical or corrupt mainstream publishing is, or are overtly angry, or ill-informed, you’re going to put people off your work rather than make them want to read more of it: and that goes for agents and editors as well as every-day readers.
63) And don’t forget that being a writer isn’t always about making the most money, or getting that next contract: it’s also about writing the best that you can, of capturing on paper the things you most believe in or love. Sometimes you need to just focus on that, and forget about earning a living—until you’re ready to revise.
My warmest thanks to the wonderful Nicola Morgan, who recommended me to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, but mostly to the seventy people who paid good money to listen to me tell them off. I enjoyed every second of it, and hope that I wasn’t too dull or too cross.