It’s May Marketing Month, and Kate McMurray has tidbits on how to handle being on the cusp of a writing career!
When I decided I was finally ready to start submitting my first novel to publishers, I had a little bit of a leg up because I’d been working in the publishing industry for about 7 years by that point. I’d sat in on editorial board meetings, I’d taken a few books from contract through publication, and I’d mailed so many review copies out that I could fill out FedEx forms in my sleep.
It takes a lot for publishing to surprise me. In other words, I sometimes take for granted that not everyone has this insider knowledge. So I thought I’d share a few things you should know as you’re getting your career started, from a publishing insider’s perspective. I tried to pick things that are common misperceptions, so hopefully I can set the record straight and let you know what to expect.
- The First Rule of Publishing Is “Hurry Up and Wait.” Everything takes more time than you think it will. Everything is also always on a rush schedule. Here’s why: every single person who works in publishing is juggling, like, eight projects at a time. In any given day, your editor probably has to edit a manuscript, read a few submissions, attend a couple of meetings, and stare forlornly at her email inbox as the messages pile up faster than she can respond to them. So while you wait for edits, your editor is doing a zillion other things.
If you have a print deal, the deadline is the deadline. Publishers schedule time at the printers months in advance. So the end dates are not flexible—if you miss the file-to-printer date, the book might not get printed. Digital has some flexibility, but publishers also schedule out their books to have a set number of releases per week.
Bottom line: publishing is a deadline-driven industry. Things have to get done when they have to get done. So what often happens to authors is they sit around waiting for things to happen, and then a lot happens all at once.
- It’s Cool to Ask Questions. In Fact, You Should Ask Questions! This applies to everything from contracts to the editorial process. Even if you have an agent, it’s worth it to carefully read through your contract and make sure you understand what it’s saying. Contracts are written to benefit the publisher, but many clauses are negotiable to a point. It’s your agent’s job to make sure you’re getting the best possible deal. If you don’t have an agent, it’s worth it to get an intellectual property lawyer to read through the contract and make sure there aren’t any traps. But bottom line, anything you don’t understand, ask about. It’s important to know what your rights are.
With editorial, it’s better to ask than to guess. If your editor is asking for a change you don’t understand, if there’s some part of the process that feels mysterious, do speak up and ask for clarification. The staff at a publisher are human; you will never be penalized for asking for clarification. In fact, your editor wants you to ask, because it will decrease the number of rounds of edits you have to do to get it right.
- Editors Are Not, In Fact, Trying to Wreck Your Soul. Art is a tough thing. We spend time on it. We put blood, sweat, and tears into our novels. Then an editor comes along with a red pen and tells you everything wrong with your book.
Fact: The editor is not trying to destroy or shame you. She’s trying to make your book as good as it can be. Edits are suggestions to improve the book.
Fact: You can dispute changes you disagree with.
Probably you’re not going to argue about grammar and punctuation. (Although I recently got into a bit of a tiff with a copyeditor who wanted a word to be lowercase that I knew should be capitalized. I got out my Chicago Manual and gave her citations, because I’m a dork. I was right. She let it stay.) But if an editor suggests a line of dialogue that is not at all what the character would say, or suggests a scene that doesn’t make sense in the context of the plot, or if she wants you to change something you feel strongly that you don’t want to change, it’s okay to leave a comment for the editor explaining that you won’t be making the change and why. I do, of course, recommend trying not to be defensive and to give each comment the benefit of the doubt; if you get an editorial suggestion that makes you balk, mull it over before quashing it. But as long as it’s not a house style or convention of the imprint, often you can say, “I don’t want to make this change because…” and the editors will go along.
- A Lot of Marketing and Publicity Is Invisible. It seems to be conventional wisdom that authors have to do all the publicity heavy lifting these days, but I think a lot of authors don’t actually understand what publicists do, and also, it’s in the publisher’s best interest for your book to sell like gangbusters—if you make money, they make money—and they will do what they can to make it happen.
If you’re being published by a large publisher, you will likely be assigned a publicist. Smaller presses have smaller staffs, so there might be one or two publicists for the whole company. A lot of what they do, you won’t see. Publicists send books out for review. They put catalogs together to distribute to librarians and booksellers. They talk directly to book buyers for both indie bookstores, bookstore chains, and big box stores. A lot of that is not splashy and you don’t see it, which I think is what has led to the perception that even the big pubs don’t do any publicity for authors. Just what I’ve described there is a lot! But often they are also working on social media campaigns, attending conferences, making print ads for websites and magazines, designing promotions, etc.
Obviously, the expectation these days is for authors to do some of the work, too: you should have a website, a couple of social media accounts, and you may wish to sink some of your own money into advertising. But publishers do a lot you don’t see, too.
- Writing Is Never Easy Money. It’s possible your first novel will be a runaway bestseller. That’s awesome if it is! But don’t quit your day job just yet. Consider this: If you get an advance, which is increasingly rare, for a first novel it’s usually only a few thousand dollars. You probably won’t get it all at once; publishers usually do part on signing and part when the manuscript is turned in. Then remember the hurry-up-and-wait thing? A digital-first book has a production schedule of about six months; a mass market or trade paperback of about a year, give or take. Publishers pay out royalties on varying schedules; some pay monthly, many pay quarterly, some only once per year. There’s also a lag on third-party vendor payments, usually 2–3 months. So figure, once the book goes on sale, you won’t see any money for it until at least a quarter/3 months after it’s been published, and probably longer. And if you did get an advance, your royalties go toward paying it back until it’s paid back—it’s an advance on royalties, after all—so you might not see any royalties at all for a while.
Which I say not to discourage you! It’s definitely possible to make decent money from writing, and I know a few authors who have quit their day jobs. But I recommend being smart about it and waiting until you have some books in your backlist, which helps make the income stream a little more predictable.
Hopefully I’ve clarified what to expect for you, but feel free to ask questions in the comments!
Kate McMurray writes smart romantic fiction. She likes creating stories that are brainy, funny, and of course sexy, with regular guy characters and urban sensibilities. She advocates for romance stories by and for everyone. When she’s not writing, she edits textbooks, watches baseball, plays violin, crafts things out of yarn, and wears a lot of cute dresses. She’s active in Romance Writers of America, serving for two years on the board of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter, and three—including two as president—on the board of the New York City chapter. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with two cats and too many books.