Getting — and Staying Published

All writers who want to share their work with the world want to be published. Some want to self-publish while others would prefer to have the backing — and distribution — of a publishing house.

At the titular panel at WorldCon 2019, George Sandison, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Rachel Winterbottom, E.C. Ambrose, and Michelle Sagara talked about the realities of traditional publishing — when you’re not an A-list author.

The Top 3 Ways Writers Make It Hard On Themselves When Getting Published

  1. Quitting their dayjob
    • A publishing contract is great! It’s a huge amount of money. But, look at it as a year’s salary (or 5 years). There is no guarantee your next book will find the same market — or that your current book will perform as well as the publishers hope.

      If you get an advance, there are shockingly few authors who ever “earn out” — or make back for the publishing house — what the publishing house gave them.

      Many authors see their advances getting smaller and smaller, until they reflect what the market will give.
  2. Switching markets
    • Of course it’s always best to write what you’re most passionate about. If you’re forcing the writing, it usually comes through to the readers as a lack-lustre book.

      That said, if you change genres and markets, it can be like building your audience from scratch. Except, without the “like”. you ARE building your audience from scratch.
  3. Getting the wrong agent
    • If you get a contract before you have an agent, it is usually very easy to find an agent. It is always wise to get an agent or contract lawyer to look over your publishing contract, but unless the lawyer specializes in book sales, the agent will likely be better versed in industry standards — what’s expected and what’s not.

      That said, make sure you know if the agent you’re working with is invested in your career, or just here to help you through this single contract. Misunderstandings can leave your career in shambles.

Is It Three Strikes and You’re Out?

Usually, what it looks like from the writers’ end is…

  1. Your first novel? Floats on clouds of hope and optimism — and the traditional publisher advance reflects this.
  2. Your second novel? Well, they like to give writers second chances.
  3. Your third novel? Good luck.

The reality is that publishers need to sell a writer and their voice, not necessarily just one genre. Plenty of authors have more than one type of story in them.

Typically, writers query agents, and agents submit manuscripts to acquiring editors. Occasionally, some publishing houses will be open to unagented submissions. But, once you’ve sold a book or two, a working-relationship can evolve.

Acquiring Editors Can Work For An Author

Editors that select works for publication at publishing houses can have working relationships as close as an agent with a given writer.

And, of course, the more senior the editor, the more clout they have when it comes to deciding what gets published.

Here are 4 ways they can help a writer.

  1. They can go to bat for your novel, versus the publishing board, even if the numbers aren’t there. (i.e. We messed up marketing last time, but this writer is too good!)
  2. Publishers can pitch ideas internally, and bring in the author they want to write it.
  3. Even after a slump, if your pitch is keen enough, they can get you an offer.
  4. Some have success changing by-lines, to re-introduce authors to new audiences.

But sometimes? You need to walk away.

Reasons to find a new publisher

  1. Sometimes, a new publisher is what you need after a slump. The old one has already used all it’s connections and marketing techniques. It’s time to try something new.
  2. Sometimes, the editor you’ve worked with leaves and no one has the passion for the manuscripts they left behind.

But not everything relies on the publisher. There’s a lot you can do to make sure you’re ready for the market.

Ways To Set Yourself Up For Success

  1. Network
    Make friends in the industry. Hit conventions (if you have the time/energy but no money — volunteer! Or, you can just keep reading my notes).

    But, be sure you’re making a good impression when you do. Everyone knows somebody here, so be friendly but respectful of boundaries.
  2. Be prepared
    Rejection stinks. Seeing friends (or frenemies) succeed while your novel is passed over hurts — whether you’re at the “hoping for an agent” level, “hoping to publish” level, or the “hoping for awards” stage.

    Know that you aren’t alone. Know what you need to keep your passion from burning out.

    Read! Write! Ignore jealousy. Or acknowledge it — and then move on.
  3. Don’t give up the day job
    Even if you do get a huge contract, or tons of steady ones, fear of bills and falling behind can put too much pressure on you, and take away the love of the writing. Remember to take care of yourself.

    Age doesn’t matter, but financial security can affect your approach.
  4. Remember what you’re comparing
    When you see social media feeds and think about all the ways you don’t measure up? You’re comparing their highlight reels to your blooper reel. Take a break if you need to. Step away if you need to.

Audience Questions

  1. How does maternity/health leaves of absences affect your career?

    If you’re writing on a schedule, know this:
    1. Publishing schedules are flexible – but…
    2. Write first — as much as possible, if the leave is scheduled, and drop everything you can to make it happen.

    If you don’t have a schedule, it’s up to you.
  2. Should I self-publish?

    The more niche your book it, the more successful it could be as a self-published book.
  3. What does it take to succeed as a writer?

    Ideas are a dime a dozen, it’s all about the writing.

    Can you write a sentence? How about a paragraph? A chapter? Can you plot?

    There is a huge cliff between a great book and a ho-hum, not bad book. Most are ho-hum.

Challenges and Anecdotes From Acquiring Editors

Whether you’re looking to break into the editing field, or just learn more about the so-called gatekeepers of the traditional publishing world, it’s always good to know more about what happens behind the scenes.

As a reminder, acquiring editors work for the publishing houses and are the ones who actually make those large-figured book deals — in addition to revising and editing manuscripts.

At WorldCon 2019’s “Editors’ panel: Challenges and Anecdotes”, I got to hear industry veterans Michael Rowley, Eleanor Teasdale, Ginjer Buchanan, John R. Douglas, and David Thomas Moor talk about their experiences.

The Strangest Part of the Job

  • When you’re doing it right, they pay you. – John R. Douglas
  • The need to cheerleader in-house to sell the book you’re working. – Ginjer Buchanan
  • The job is to find joy and passion and beauty and personality. And edit it out. Then, digest the book down to a single line. – David Thomas Moor.

The Biggest Challenges

  • Authors who don’t want to take edits
    • Usually – they don’t want to
    • Occasionally – they try to counter-argue the grammar or the rhythm, etc.
  • When you give your heart and soul and rah-rah to a book and it just didn’t work out. (Thanks to timing, a bad cover, or just fate).
  • The book(s) you didn’t get — that end up best sellers.
    • Other divisions of the same company over-bidding you
    • Get told ‘no’ at the publisher’s meeting (by Marketing/Sales/etc)
    • Ones you passed on
  • Getting the right cover
  • John Douglas tried to win the Game of Thrones proposed series at auction, but George RR Martin accepted the deal that offered $75k in marketing, over the book deal with more upfront money.

Favorite Book They’ve Worked On

Several of the editors refused to “pick between their children”. But, we got a few answers.

  • Maybe Mike Brooks’s Dead Sky – Michael Rowley
  • John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting – John R. Douglas
  • Charlie Stross’s Halting State duology. Also, media tie in novels for Quantum Leap. She read fanzines and hired the best writers. Asked them to pitch her — the writers loved the source material and it showed. Working on that was ‘nothing but fun.’ – Ginjer Buchanan

Practical Advice On Breaking In As An Editor

  • Move to London or New York
  • Get any job at a publishing house and work your way up
    • Private assistant
    • Intern
    • Marketing/Sales/etc
  • Take a job at a small press to build your resume
  • Get a degree in English/editing
  • Earn the “Society of Editors and Proofreaders” certificate [UK]
  • Network (conventions/etc)
  • Look on bookseller websites for jobs or [UK] the IPG
  • Luck

As with everything book or writing related, hard work and luck seems to be a large part of it.

Thanks for tuning in. I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.