Friday, April 07, 2006

The Importance of Being You

Your opinions are correct, and worth more than the opinions of others. True or false?

True, of course. Unless there's something DSM-IV at play, your opinions are all about what works for you. While you might not always know what's best for you, you think you know what's best for you, and there's nothing wrong with standing behind that.

It's impossible to live life without making decisions, without making choices. And hopefully, you have experience or logic to back up these choices, because it's important to examine and attempt to understand why you do the things you do.

People write for many different reasons. Some want to express themselves, to be proponents of art and culture, to share their ideas and philosophies. Some want the acceptance, the exposure, the accolades, the fame, the notoriety. Some want the money, the job, the income. Some want to entertain, enthrall, delight. Some want to provoke. Some write for a combination of reasons, or for other reasons entirely.

And each reason is valid, for the writer.

The mistake that a lot of writers make is believing their reasons are the best reasons, or the only reasons, or the right reasons.

The reasons you write are the right reasons---for you. They might not be right for other writers. And they certainly aren't universally important, nor should you expect them to be.

But some things are universal.

I write because I love it. But once I try to sell my writing, my personal reasons for writing come into conflict with the business of writing.

In publishing, compromises will be made. Always. Once money comes into play, the reason you write becomes twofold---your original reason, and your obligation to your publisher.

Your publisher is buying your work because they believe they can make money from it. This is capitalism. Your publisher will expect things from you, to help them in their efforts. Contracts, deadlines, editing, rewriting, publicity, promotion, marketing, advances, subsidiary rights---all of these suddenly come into play.

My writing philosophy is simple: Make money for your publisher.

I do this by not only doing a lot of self-promotion, but by also considering my audience even before I sit down to write a single word.

This means compromises. This means understanding the system writing exists in (the publishing business) and weighing it against the many reasons I wanted to become a writer.

Successful writers seem to understand this balance, and the trade-offs required. They realize that their books are products as well as art.

By 'successful' I mean that they are making money for their publisher. You don't have to be an NYT bestseller to do this. All you have to do is earn out your advance.

You can earn out your advance by doing a lot of self-promotion, by working closely with your publisher, by spending a lot of your advance money on marketing, and by writing good books.

The definition of 'good' is subjective, and opinions vary. My definition of good is simple: A good book is something that a complete stranger will pay money for---enough complete strangers to earn out your advance.

What makes a book 'good' has nothing to do with anything inherent in the book. If you think you've just written a masterpiece, someone somewhere will disagree with you.

Many writers scream about how terrible certain NYT bestsellers are. How their books are crap, and how they are much better writers than Danielle Steel or Clive Cussler or Dan Brown.

Many writers scream that popular culture is a cesspool, appealing only to the lowest common denominator.

Many writers talk of art, and standards, and culture.

Many writers blame their publishers for their failures.

Many writers insist that talent alone will ensure success, and the unwashed masses need to accept them for what they are.

Many writers need to get a clue.

Dismissing successful authors serves no purpose. Though your opinion of their writing might differ from the public's opinion, it might help to try and understand why certain authors become successful.

This isn't a competition. No writer is better than any other writer. And your opinion, though valid, is subjective.

If you want to believe you're better than Stephen King, you're entitled to that belief.

But publishers won't believe that, until you sell more books than King. And all of King's fans will think you're an idiot.

The higher the horse, the bigger the fall. The reasons you write, and your books, are not more important or better than anyone else's reasons for writing, or their books.

Write for whatever reason you want to write. But disregard the business, and it's successes, at your own peril.

Opinions may vary, but numbers don't lie.


William G. said...

Words of wisdom: “The higher the horse, the bigger the fall.”

Anonymous said...

By 'successful' I mean that they are making money for their publisher. You don't have to be an NYT bestseller to do this. All you have to do is earn out your advance.

I've heard more than one NYT author say that if you're earning out your advance? Then your advance is not high enough.

Anonymous said...

I've heard more than one NYT author say that if you're earning out your advance? Then your advance is not high enough.

My new agent just said this yesterday. I think the writer has to consider the totality of the contract and not just the advance amount to determine what earning out the advance actually means.

I agree, Joe, that numbers don't lie, but they can mean different things in the language of a contract. We could both get the same advance, sell the same 25,000 books, but earn (and be paid) different amounts based on the terms of our contract.

I could earn out my advance and you couldn't. Does that mean that you're not making money for the publisher? I don't think it's that simple, even though publishers want us to believe that it is.

JA Konrath said...

There's a great article by Denise Little on publishers making money, and it is more complicated than simply earning out your advance.


JA Konrath said...

It's official. I'm the anti-christ.

Vist my friend Lee Goldberg's blog to find out why:

Jude Hardin said...

Good post, Joe.

I think we can all learn something from bestsellers, even if we don't consider some of them to be "good" writers. I think it comes down to thematic content more than style, voice, and talent sometimes. Write a book with themes that resonate with a large part of the population; the prose, great or not so great, won't matter much.

Finding those themes is the hard part, of course, and the only way to do it is to write, write, write.

I'm paraphrasing, but Flannery O'Conner said the reason she wrote was to discover how she felt about certain issues. In other words, until she wrote it down, she didn't know.

If we write, write, write, maybe we'll discover themes that send chills down our backs and the backs of our readers. Maybe we'll touch a nerve that will get that word of mouth thing going.

Maybe not.

But if you're a writer, you have to keep trying.

Bernita said...

Well said and well done, Joe.
Thank you.

Christine said...

And just like with everything else in life, there will always be someone who writes better than you do... and someone who writes worse.

Just be the best 'you' that you can be, and let the rest take care of itself. Of course, as long as you're learning along the way and don't stagnate, then being the best you is all you CAN do.

Sandra Ruttan said...

There is a difference between being a writer and being a book seller, though.

And while this post is directed at success through raking in the big bucks, should we compare the "success" of Laura Lippman and the "success" of Sue Grafton.

As I understand it, Sue outsells Laura. But I'd rather be like Laura. Industry respect, peer respect, self respect. And I like Laura's books.

You make such sweeping, generalized statements Joe. Which make me laugh. But then, you wouldn't be you if you didn't.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well said Mark.

Anyone who dishes out money wants to see a return.

And for the record, I'm paying my way to Harrogate for the second year in a row, just because I believe in the value of face-to-face with people in the business. Going last year helped me in ways I couldn't have dreamed possible before I went. Just about everything in my career ties back to investing $3000 in a trip to the UK.

Have I earned that back yet? Nope. But I have my first book on the way out, a short story in the summer issue of Crimespree, interviews coming out in Crimespree as well, and I've been asked to do some other projects by other publications.

And that's not bad for someone who was repeatedly told they couldn't sell in the US, they'd never get an agent because they were Canadian, blah blah blah. I might think Joe is a little hung up on selling and a tad bit short on quality writing and craft, but I secretly agree with a lot that he says.

And if I don't, I'll state in here in the interest of discussion. If I didn't respect him, I wouldn't have put his link on my blog. Because I'm petty and shallow that way.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I should add that I meant in his blog rants he's short on emphasizing quality writing and craft.

Not that his writing is short on quality.


Anonymous said...

I've had over a dozen short story sales to various publishers but no takers (yet) on my second novel (the first one was unpublishable scifi drek that I knew better than to submit). This second one has more possibilities. So, I do read Joe's blog and this one and Miss Snark and Kristen Nelson and so on and hope to absorb as much information as possible. A lot of Joe's advice is truly excellent and I feel that he truly wants to help newbies. He's certainly been generous with his time and energy here and at con panels and other venues.

But, from the very start of reading of Joe's exploits on the Web and in magazines like Writer's Digest, the idea that an author must/should dump most/all of his or her advance into promotion, marketing and advertising, has troubled me. And frankly, it bothers me that Joe might be setting the bar far higher than most new writers can possibly manage. Sure, it generates publicity but is it setting the expectation that all new novelists have to do this level of marketing on their time and money? Visit 500 bookstores a year? Do 200 drive-by signings in a summer? Those are just not realistic numbers for people who have to work the damned day job to keep a roof overhead.

I don't know for sure but I'd guess that Joe hasn't worked a 9 to 5 gig for years. And I'd bet he has a spouse who provides health insurance and a steady salary. For many writers, especially those of us who are partner-free or who work the day job to support a household, doing the full-time marketing gig just isn't possible.

If/when I get the novel sold, then I'll do my damnedest to cover as many promotional opportunities as possible, within the confines of my budget and time constraints. But shouldn't my advance support me, not the other way around?

And no, Joe is not the anti-Christ.

JA Konrath said...

If/when I get the novel sold, then I'll do my damnedest to cover as many promotional opportunities as possible, within the confines of my budget and time constraints. But shouldn't my advance support me, not the other way around?

In a perfect world, it should.

We all do what we can, and comparing yourself to what other writers do is never a wise idea. Set your goals on a personal level.

I know enough about this business to know that getting a book deal doesn't mean your career is assured. If you want to get to the point where you don't have to worry about money, you have to show your publisher that you're the horse to bet on. That means pulling big numbers.

Some books sell themselves. Most need help. How much help you give them is up to you.

My wife has a part time job. No health insurance. We live on credit cards and eat a lot of mac and cheese. I quit 9 to 5 hour four years ago, and that was the last time I had a vacation.

I'm not wading into the pool. I'm jumping into the deep end. The future will reveal if I sink or swim.

Sandra Ruttan said...

If you want to be a doctor, what do you do?

Sit at home and wait for someone to nominate you to the role and bestow the title?

If you want to be a fireman, what do you do? Run around starting fires and hope somebody will think maybe they should hire you to put them out?

If you want to be a police officer, I suppose you should drop out of school and race down the roads to prove that you can handle a high-speed chase to catch a criminal?

And if you want to be a dentist...?

You get the idea. For the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of decent career options out there, you need to go to school. To study. To learn. Maybe do an apprenticeship or practicum.

And should all the people who need doctors, lawyers, nurses, dentists, fireman, etc. just recognize your talent and say, "Damn man, of course we'll pay to educate you!"


This is the one thing that amazes me about writers. Now, I'll slightly disagree with Joe here, possibly, on investing in your writing. I know he says don't pay to enter a contest. I don't know what he says about paying for a critique.

But if you want to be a writer, you do have things to learn. Very few retreat into isolation, whip off a novel and sell it on the first try.

And then there's the whining about the cost of submitting manuscripts, of paying for a professional edit or critique, of paying to attend a convention like BoucherCon.

Bottom line: If your dream was to be a lawyer, you might not happy about the price of education, but if that's what you really wanted to do, you'd suck up the expense. Thousands do. Why? They know there will be a return - and they know they can't get there without the investment.

But writers seem to think they'll send off the manuscript and get the 6-figure advance immediately.

Have any of you people actually read Joe's story about getting his deal? I have - I have the magazine article in my office. You know what? Investing in having a career as an author doesn't end when you sign your first contract. You still have an apprenticeship to work through. You still have investments to make in your education.

Bottom line is, a lot of authors can't afford to quit their day jobs. I can think of several authors that work by day and write by night. Some of them blog as well. They know it takes time to build that career and that for most, it doesn't happen overnight.

This isn't just about generating more book sales, though that's part of it. It's about learning the entire business. There's more to being an author than writing in isolation.

It would be nice to think that the money you get for selling books will support you, but I've heard it over and over again from people in the business that too many writers quit their day jobs too soon. It might be signing your first book deal will put you on easy street financially, but most likely not. There's still work to be done, time to be invested, a career to build. Heavens, there are a lot of jobs that require a certain number of practical hours of work per year or you have to re-qualify. Some even require a certain number of educational upgrading per year - my career in education required that. So I didn't get a job and get on easy street with all the expenses of the education behind me.

Getting off my soap box now. Sorry Joe.

Anonymous said...

Joe, thanks for your cheerful candor and willingness to help us newbies. I will take your advice to heart and try to stay focused on *my* goals.

And may I reccomend Ramen noodles (7 for $1) which can be duly enhanced with leftover veggies and chunks o'chicken as a viable dinner? Also, scoops chips filled with chicken chunks, cheese and sour cream can be a cheap meal!

Best to you,