Writer beware

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By Dennis J Pale

I love to write. I’ve had pretty minimal success in getting published with anyone reputable or worth dealing with, so my job here at Panorama has been a bit of a wish come true. After all, I’ve developed this particular skill set because I enjoy doing it, and somehow I found someone willing to PAY me to do it. Now I just have to get a job eating pizza and playing Xbox and I’ll be on easy street…

Many of us have this drive to create little worlds, and as a hobby it’s both satisfying and productive. When it comes to making money from wordsmithing, though, the dream is a little different to the reality. I’m not in the league of Rowling or King, so I’m not silly enough to pretend I can tell you how to be a successful author, but I do have advice on what NOT to do. Like one of my t-shirts used to say: “It’s all about luck…just ask any loser.”

Knockbacks hurt

You’ve spent weeks on a short story or years on a book, and poured your soul through the keyboard. It’s your crowning achievement, your ticket to wealth, fame and happiness…but probably not. Just to be clear, you should get your stuff out there and hit up every publisher and literary agent, but if you’re an unknown, unpublished author, be warned: if you get a response beyond “we regret to inform you that you suck” or something similar, you’re in the minority. First-time authors are like lepers. Keep in mind that JK Rowling got a dozen knockbacks for Harry Potter, and even after that hurdle the adventures of Harry, Ron and Hermione didn’t sell very well (they came close to being taken off the shelf at one point). As another example, Stephen King worked in a laundromat, at a garage pumping gas and as an English teacher before the success of Carrie, and this only came about because King’s wife rescued his manuscript from a bin! Success does happen, but these two stories show how hard the industry can be, even if you have talent. A little Googling will provide you with many other encouraging examples.

Publishers pay YOU!

This is a lesson that hurts. So, some publisher or literary agent has said those magic words to you: we love your story, we want to publish it, here’s the contract. And then they start to ask for money for things like mailing fees and administrative assistance, and so on. I’ve fallen for this trap and it can be very, very expensive. If a publisher is asking for money, either it’s a self-publisher that will dump some books on your doorstep for a nominal fee (I pay about $7 per book, including shipping costs from the US) or worse, they are a “vanity press.” A vanity press will offer the world, charge you thousands up front and deliver nothing but a horrible cover design and defective editing. Vanity press books never get placement in bookshops, either. If in doubt, jump onto Google (a writer’s best friend in so many ways), type in the publisher’s name and add words like COMPLAINT or SCAM to the search. Dodgy publishers get outed by cheesed-off authors pretty quick, so research thoroughly before signing anything.

Submission guidelines

Nothing will earn your manuscript a refusal faster than not sticking to the guidelines. Very few publishers nowadays even bother reading unsolicited manuscripts, so if their website says “no unsolicited manuscripts,” they mean it. Don’t waste your postage on them, or your story will only be read by the closest paper shredder.

But wait…there’s good news! Quite a few major publishers have set windows where they’ll read anything you send in, such as Penguin’s Monthly Catch (running from the 1st to the 7th of every month) and The Wednesday Post from HarperCollins. But I repeat again: follow the submission guidelines to the letter.

Be ready

To submit your manuscript to a publisher you will generally need the following things:

1. The first three chapters of your book double-spaced and formatted according to the publisher’s specifications. Some will accept email submissions, most won’t. Put your name and address on the front page.

2. A short synopsis of your novel.

3. A brief cover letter about yourself along with any relevant info, like if you’ve had personal experiences with the topic of your book or if you’ve been published before.

4. A stamped self-addressed envelope of the right size if you want your manuscript back.

You’ll be competing with a million books

Thanks to Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer and other recent literary mega stars (whether they suck or not isn’t my point), everybody on Earth seems to have had the exact same idea: “I’m going to write a book and get rich.” Bad news: the hardcopy publishing industry is crumbling with the rise of e-books (more on these in a minute) and the number of manuscripts that pour into the mail slots of any given publisher is beyond belief. Most novels are rejected within the first page, or even the first paragraph (I once famously submitted a manuscript with a grammatical error in the title of the first rotten chapter). You really need skill and something original to make it nowadays.

Get with the times

An e-book is what you call it when you upload your manuscript and use a suite of electronic tools to create a file that people will pay a small fee to download. And by a small fee, I mean a dollar, or perhaps ten at the most. This file can then be read on laptops, smartphones, tablets and other e-book readers. The e-book industry is getting exponentially bigger all the time and has no intention of slowing. If you’re confident in doing your own formatting then many sites will allow you to create and publish an e-book very affordably, or even for free. I personally use KDP Direct from Amazon, primarily because it costs me nothing. Other advantages to e-books include a huge profit margin (you may earn as much as 70% of the cover price, as opposed to as little as 10% from a traditional paperback) and if you want to edit your e-book you can simply change the core file and post it up again, all within 24 hours. Designing your own cover is recommended to keep costs down. A bit of fiddling on Photoshop with some public domain images can produce good results.

You have to LOVE it

Despite all the horrors I’ve described, I still write. I keep on doing it and I’ll probably never quit. Why? I’m driven by it. I believe in the quality of my work and have confidence that my wordsmithing is a pastime that will only get better with practice. One day, I believe that a publisher will acknowledge this and play ball. Every real author shares this dream.

Sell out (a little bit)

As much as people love to criticise Twilight, it’s highly likely that Stephanie Meyer is swimming in a giant money bin like a gothed-up Scrooge McDuck at this very moment. I usually write science fiction, a genre on the “AVOID” list of just about everyone I know. I rarely manage to say the “fi” part of “sci-fi” before I’ve already lost a potential customer. So, if your chosen genre isn’t a popular one, sell out…at least a little bit. Write something that people will like, something that has a big audience. The one time I tried to create something different I penned a black comedy novel about the Australian mental health system. To date, SHELTERED has sold ten times as many copies as all my other books combined. This is totally infuriating for me (but in a good way).

Please note that I’m not telling you to write garbage! Be sure to create something of the highest possible quality. You can continue being arty, aloof and fiercely opposed to going mainstream as much as you want, but the reality is that writing is a business with supply-and-demand issues like any other. If you want your writing to be financially viable, give the people what they want. I still haven’t reached the point where I’ve considered romance novels, but you never know…

Get a day job

Even reasonably successful novelists don’t make enough money to survive purely from their writing. 98% never will. Sadly, mathematically speaking, the odds are that both you and I will remain that way. However, if you give up, that outcome will be guaranteed.

I’m not going to give you any “believe in yourself” self-help junk. Be prepared to actually work for a living and, if your book takes off, fantastic. But that potential million dollars you may earn a decade from now isn’t going to feed your family tonight or pay that unexpected electricity bill next week.

Promote yourself shamelessly

Why? Nobody else will, that’s why! On that note, with a distinct lack of shame, here are the links to my two comedy novels about the Australian mental health system called SHELTERED and A FENCE WITHOUT RAZORS. There are free samples of both if you’d like to try before you buy. Just click the link.

Sheltered ebook from Amazon

A Fence Without Razors ebook from Amazon

You can also contact me here if you’d like:

dennisjpale@gmail.com

Recommended “writer beware”resources:

www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/

pred-ed.com/pubwarn.htm

accrispin.blogspot.com.au/

www.victoriastrauss.com/writer-beware

www.absolutewrite.com/freelance_writing/writer_beware.htm

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