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The depressing reality of publishing

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Old 11-29-2009, 07:15 AM
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After close to a decade of writing and a year's membership on this forum, I thought it was about time to express the following.

The depressing reality of writing is that it's one of the most difficult areas to make money from, especially creative writing. Journalists and editors do alright, but if you write plays or novels you are very unlikely to make a significant amount of money from what you do.

The mistake most individuals who want to make a career out of writing make is this: they ignore the business aspect of what they do. Now, one could argue that business has no place in art, but if you're trying to get published or produced, the business aspect becomes the dominant interest. No one will publish your work - no one! - if they think it has merit but will not sell. A few boutique publishers will publish something they strongly believe in for its artistic value, but they will fund this with more financially sure publications. These publishers are already rare, and will be even more cautious and selective than your commercially successful ones.

To be perfectly frank, your chances of ever having a novel published are incredibly small. The most commercially successful writer of our time - JK Rowling - was rejected around 20 times before being published. Okay, so a lot of those publishers and agents must be installing ceiling fans to hang their nooses from, but the obvious point is that they are incredibly cautious when it comes to new writers.

While reluctant to turn a good reality slap into an advertorial, I'm a pretty good example of how difficult the writing industry is. Why me? I am both a decent businessman and a decent writer, both assertions I make with backup from external sources.

I have supported myself solely by my own business for two years now, and do consultancy work in IT, administration and editing. While I'm no maverick (nor care to be one), I must know how to run a decent business otherwise I'd be on welfare or a street corner.

As a writer, I won a reputable, nationwide competition in 2002 and had a play produced. The theatre is now defunct, but it was pretty big at the time as it was run by David Williamson's son. Some big Aussie actors came along to the production, including Rose Byrne (Star Wars, 28 Weeks Later, Troy) and Michael Caton (The Castle and other Australian films you haven't heard of). Big bikkies. I won't bore you with my resume, but I've had plenty of plays performed in Sydney and publications in mags and on decent websites (like Writers Beat Quarterly yay). My total earnings are in the low hundreds.

So with knowledge of business and the industry, and tangible achievements as a writer, I still can't get published. I'm currently editing my fifth novel and it is only with this that I feel confident I'll finally receive commercial interest.

With all of this frustration, I took matters into my own hands and founded an independent publishing company here in Aus and printed one of my novels. It was through this process - the business side of publishing - that I discovered exactly why the industry is so tough.

Selling books is a bitch. The book might be fantastic but people won't buy it if it's stuffed away in the bowels of a bookstore. They need to know about the book or the writer first. If your name is Brittany Spears you'll sell a terrible book because people are dumb enough to buy rubbish written by morons just because they have celebrity status. If your name is Pete Malicki people will say, 'Who the fuck is Pete Malicki?' and move on to the John Grishams and cookbooks.

Everyone in the industry knows that unknowns sell poorly, and the industry is geared towards ignoring said unknowns. Bookstores won't stock your book because they haven't heard of you, distributors won't distribute it because they haven't heard of you, the media won't print stories about you because you're not of any real interest to the general public, and people won't buy your book because they won't find it. With a hired Sales Manager and steadfast media crusade, I only managed to get 10 Sydney bookstores to stock my book.

Given this fact, publishers are only interested in established writers who have a established market, or famous people, or the rare novel of such incredible quality they're willing to spend extra money marketing it. Their publicist needs to get you interviews, arrange booksignings and talks, and pay for ads in magazines and on websites. It's money they don't have to spend on Dan Brown or other known authors. And they won't spend this money out of the good of their hearts - they'll do it because it makes them a profit in the end.

And before you accuse publishers of greed, think again. You know that 15% royalty thing you hear about? Not much for the author, right? Publisher making a fortune out of you, right? Well, it's not the case. Distributors expect to buy books at about 35-40% of their RRP, which would be about $10 for a $24 novel. They on-sell it for about 20%, leaving the bookseller with roughly the same profit as the publishing company. So the author, editor, designer, illustrator, publicist, printer and everyone else involved in the production of the book receives the combined total of just one bookstore per sale. Who's greedy?

In the case of my book, I would lose money if I used a distributor. The production cost to me was about $9 per book, which is exactly what I would've received from the distributor. I'd be essentially giving it away.

An online bookseller will also take a decent commission - maybe 35-40%. One website, www.booktopia.com.au, wanted a 50% commission for selling my book. Their merchant, storage and postal service was apparently of equal value to me actually writing and producing the thing.

To date, I've sold 100 of 1000 copies of my book and lost $6K. To break even I'll have to sell about half my print run, which won't be easy but will happen eventually. If I sell the entire run I'll stand to make about ten thousand dollars, which is pretty crap money for 9 months of writing, 3 months of editing, and 4 months of full time production (plus constant adminstration and sales stuff). From a businessman's perspective, it was a pretty retarded thing to do. From my perspective as an aspiring writer, it may help me leverage my career and therefore be worth the investment.

I'd like to publish more stuff, but I wouldn't publish an unknown even if I thought it was the best book ever written. Why not? Because I couldn't afford to. I'd be more interested in the person's profile than their manuscript, though that would have to be incredible too.

What's the point of all these details?

The book industry makes slim profits and preferences larger print runs, where printing costs are lessened considerably. Even if they love your manuscript and decide to publish it, they won't do a large print run initially and won't make much money from you. If it sells well you might get a reprint and actually earn something worthwhile. If it doesn't, you're back to square one.

Getting published is bloody hard, and for bloody good reason. If you have your heart set on becoming a published author, read the above and see what you've got working against you. Being good isn't enough. You have to be outstanding.

My advice is this: if you think you've really got what it takes to be an author, or even better an author who makes a living from writing, then work hard on your profile. Win competitions, get works produced and performed, write for websites and magazines, get media coverage (local paper, community groups), and expect to take a good few years doing it. I've heard it takes four books to get published - that's probably about right. You need to hone your skills, and you'll need that time to build up your smaller successes. A prospective agent or publisher will probably Google you nowadays, so Google yourself (or your psuedonym) and see if anything other than your Twatter or Farcebook accounts show up.

A quick analogy to finish with: I have quite a few new friends in the theatre world now that I've actively been getting plays performed. Many of them hope for a career in acting. Many of them are great at what they do. But being a great theatre actor isn't enough to get you a lead role in a feature film. You have to be absolutely outstanding, or at the very least hot and talentless. Sure, there are loads of exceptions, but there are thousands of talented people out there who'll never make money or gain success because that's the way the industry is.

The depressing reality of publishing is that most of you will never be published because being good isn't good enough. If you really want to go down this path, be realistic about your chances and about what you have to do.

I hope some of you become the lucky ones.

Pete Malicki

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Old 11-29-2009, 08:49 AM
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On that note, I have decided to change my pen name to Fred. Fred Hemingway.
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Old 11-29-2009, 09:23 AM
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All true, to a greater or lesser degree, if couched in somewhat self-pitying tones. In amongst it all is the nugget, though:

Originally Posted by PeteMalicki View Post
Being good isn't enough. You have to be outstanding.
That's the point. If you're second-rate,go do something else. My observations are slightly different to Pete's, insofar as I know of new writers getting signed (and some of them for big bucks advances) every day. Some bomb, some do well. Sure it's hard to get published. If it was easy, really, what would the point be?
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Old 11-29-2009, 09:44 AM
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My question to either of you two gentlemen is this. There are authors out there I would not consider outstanding writers, but they have their niche, and a healthy following of readers. To single out two in particular; James Patterson and Robert Parker. Even Grisham for that matter, but I consider him a cut above the average. Maybe it was luck that gave them their shot, or perhaps an agent or editor that considered their work to be the best among those submissions that fell into their genre. Is that assumption not plausible, or feasibly correct. I am not saying they were overnight success stories, but they certainly aren't producing literary masterpieces. An opinion on that would be appreciated.
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Old 11-29-2009, 10:36 AM
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That's the really depressing part. Being an outstanding writer is no guarantee of publication, either.

(And the three you mention are hardly in "niches", by the way...unless you think of "best-seller" as a niche.)

You get two types of writing advice on forums, and in all the pep rally seminars and books.

Type 1: Work endlessly on improving your craft. Practice, create character dossiers, learn to write backwards in the mirror, whatever. If you just keep working on improving your craft, you will produce something they'll just have to take.

Type 2: Work endlessly on flogging your work. It's all elbow grease and shoe leather. Work the internet, go to conferences, write articles, blog, pass out bookmarks, have readings, sacrifice your first-born.

The trouble is, neither is any guarantee whatsoever. The big factor, actually has a lot more to do with luck. Of course luck favors the bold and prepared and all that, but here's what I mean.

First, talent. If you're lucky you are talented. Not at "writing" necessarily, but in that knack of coming up with stories and telling them.

But beyond that: Grisham and Robin Cook and such were lucky because they were in professions that brought them cool material that people like to read about.
Successful writers are lucky that what they consider is interesting co-incides with the same interest in an appreciable number of people who buy books.

Not just subject matter, like Clancy liking war engines but some other poor schmuck digging historical earth-moving technology, but in what they find interesting and how they use it. You see the imitations of Clancy and Rowling and Grisham... they just don't grab you.

An analogy might help make me clearer: you could be the greatest composer of Gregorian chants alive, and work tirelessly to get them heard. But you're not going to make MTV. Ever.

But, you say, there was a big fad of Tibetan throat singers. And "Wherefore Art Thou Brother" created a quick yuppie mania for old-timey music, like the ragtime buzz after "The Sting".
And I say, what would you call that? It's called Luck.

Here's another one: if you're writing about wackos, and live in S. Florida, you're in business. People are aware of Barry and Hiiasen and Dorsey and Shames and.... But if you send in a similar book set in Tijuana (as I have) or Omaha, they aren't going to look at it as long or with the positive set.
So... if you want to write about drug wackos and state history, you're lucky if you live in Florida. Other states don't have history being destroyed or nutsos.

Columbia is interesting, Mexico isn't. Border literature requires having a hispanic name. Those are two of my personal betes noir at the moment.

You could start a blog that catches on and is on Letterman and there you are, beating agents off with a stick. Have parents in the industry. Write a sob story about black women in Oprah's home town. Lucky you.

Anything said about publishing above goes triple for screenplays, by the way.
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Old 11-29-2009, 10:39 AM
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I don't see self-pity in Pete's message, by the way. I think it's good advice to young writers.
If you're not prepared to spend a writing career producing material that's worthy but never gets published, don't get started.
If you're thinking of going into creative writing to make a living, just shoot yourself.

The best plan is to write with an articulated "ramp" of possibilities that is fun and allows you to get read all the way along the way, with publication a possible cherry on the cake some day.

And invest in a rabbit's foot.
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Old 11-29-2009, 02:01 PM
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Originally Posted by Lin View Post
I don't see self-pity in Pete's message, by the way. I think it's good advice to young writers.
Well I'm flattered. At 2am, self-pity is my dominant emotion.

Indeed, it's not meant to be a whine, rather, an illustration of the difficulties of the industry. I'm actually really, really satisfied with my writing career - I've published a book (albeit by paying for it), won a major competition, had plays staged, been printed in mags and on decent websites, and I've even had a groupie. Short of making money, I have no complaints.

Pete
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Old 11-29-2009, 02:30 PM
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Oh my. Now I'm thoroughly depressed.

On a more serious note, this really puts things in perspective for many new writers. Personally, I've always written because I like to; I like to create new worlds and watch my characters grow, change, and go through any number of difficulties in their own "worlds." I'd love to get something published, and maybe I will. Maybe I won't. But I'll take comfort in the fact that I tried my damnedest and enjoyed every step of the way.

Thanks for sharing this with us, Pete. It's so hard, in this world of "sheltering people so they won't have to bear the tough stuff," to hear some straight facts. Success is hard-earned and sometimes never achieved, but it's always good to know what one is up against in striving for that success.
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Old 11-29-2009, 06:57 PM
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I am now completely depressed and considering calling the agents I have queried and asking them to just throw my letter and sample chapters away. Hopefully sparing me the humiliation of being told I'm a below par writer.
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Old 11-29-2009, 11:29 PM
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Authors thrive on self-pity, I should note.

Anyway, it's true. But Pete, you have to remember that it's easier when you sell through a big publishing house. Lots and lots of copies, advertising and distribution. You don't pay a cent, and the money comes in and in big rolls if you're successful.

The road of self-publishing, is, unfortunately, a road that should be considered before taking.
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Old 11-30-2009, 12:34 AM
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This is true: a commercial publisher has the resources and connections to print cheap, distribute widely, and get good media and PR. However I doubt they'll do a print run of 15,000 for a new author unless they really think he/she has something special. But yeah, don't self publish unless you're prepared to lose a lot of money. FYI, I expected to lose a lot of money!

Heatherlynn, why waste 25c on a phone call when the agents are just going to burn and flush your sample chapters anyway? Grin.

And yes, if your true motivation for trying to be published is to be read and not make money, why not give your work away for free in electronic form where it costs you nothing. I'm doing that with my theatre now: http://sites.google.com/site/petemalicki/writing/plays (and yes, that's a blatant ad!). I have a friend Alex Broun who's probably the most produced writer of 10 minute plays in the world. He currently allows people to download and produce his work for free - and he's already had over 150 productions this year alone!!!

But really, this is not cause for depression. I think of the difficulty as inspiration to work harder, produce better material, and really earn my successes. It'd be no fun if it was too easy.

Pete
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Old 11-30-2009, 02:25 AM
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It'd be no fun if it was too easy.
That's very true. And everyone would be able to do it, as well. Wouldn't feel much like an accomplishment in that case; would feel more like "Yep, I'm just like everyone else: Published. Whoopie."
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Old 11-30-2009, 03:13 AM
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Originally Posted by SW View Post
Authors thrive on self-pity, I should note.
Indeed, and it was probably unnecessarily rude of me to point that out. Sorry Pete!

I think, though, that rather than taking this as a cue to shred our work and slit our wrists, it's a useful prompt for self-evaluation and in fact a look at the wider picture.

Looking broadly, Pete's publishing business failed. No biggie, about 50% of all businesses fail in their first year. That's regardless of whether you're publishing or manufacturing widgets. Putting in my management consultant's hat (broad generalisations a speciality stamped on the brim), I'd say the big problems were under-capitalisation and a lack of marketing. A bit of money for marketing and a salaried publicist can generate a surprising amount of buzz.

For the rest of us, sure it's tough to sell your book, regardless of the route you take.

If you're going the trad route you have to play the game and jump through hoops to get taken up by a good agent, and then on hopefully to a good publisher, and that's 50% dependent on having a marketable (note the word marketable, as 'good' is a wholly subjective term) book, and 50% on your ability and willingness to play the game to completion. A 'bad' book stands a greater chance of publication than a 'good' book if the 'good' book's author gives up at the first hurdle and the 'bad' book's author pursues his or her goals aggressively.

If you choose to self-publish, you face somewhat more of a battle that most people who choose that route tend to forget. When you go the trad route, you only have to convince one person - generally an agent - that you have a killer product. When you self-publish, you have to do it over and over. Every book you sell, you have to sell. It's not sufficient just to have it listed on Amazon, B&N etc. So is everyone else's. It's not enough to have a website. So does everyone else.

There are people out there who are making reasonable sales through self publishing, but they're a small minority, and they're the ones who know how to market themselves and their books, and get off their backsides and sell the product.
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Old 11-30-2009, 08:50 AM
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I have to say as a relatively new writer, I find the publishing area a bit of a mire, althuogh it may be different in Scotland, my 1st completed book, has a couple of nibbles at the bait just now, as it is as two publishers. I got quite upfront with both of them and said the other was looking at it, I also stated that I had no interest in vanity or "author contribution" publishing. We'll see what happens
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Old 11-30-2009, 11:27 AM
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I wish someone would steal my book, find an agent and publisher and sell a million copies. Then I could go to court and become wealthy and published.
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Old 11-30-2009, 11:35 AM
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Paco, I'm sensing that you and Gaines could do each other a big favour...

As for the OP, I don't find it depressing; it's just the way it is. Getting published in the traditional way is an achievement, and that means it can't be easy. It also means most writers won't make enough to feed their pets for a year, ergo writing has to be an enjoyable hobby that occasionally pays (small) dividends. I can live with that.
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Old 11-30-2009, 12:08 PM
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Gaines and I have agreed to kill each other. That what you mean? Writing is the hardest job I've ever taken on. But you're right, there are some good moments when you can pat yourself on the back.
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Old 11-30-2009, 12:45 PM
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Originally Posted by Mike C View Post
Indeed, and it was probably unnecessarily rude of me to point that out. Sorry Pete!
That's alright.

Originally Posted by Mike C View Post
Looking broadly, Pete's publishing business failed. No biggie, about 50% of all businesses fail in their first year. That's regardless of whether you're publishing or manufacturing widgets.
I should point out, that being the self-proclaimed 'decent' businessman that I am, I fully expected this outcome. I was hoping to do a little better a little faster, but the distribution killed me. So financially speaking, Mike's right, the business failed. The reason I published knowing I'd most likely lose money was to kick-start my career - I can now contact publishers as an author and not just some dude.

I've also got a few other publications lined up. Hoorah. Just need an illustrator for a children's book. So if you know anyone...

Pete
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