I've been doing this for some years now - writing and freelance editing, I mean - and I still sometimes feel as if I'm poking and prodding my way through the darkness that is publishing. It's exciting, it's frustrating, it's probably proof that I'm a masochist. But, I will say, it's easier than it was when I started out. Much easier. Because through poking and prodding, I've learned some stuff. The dark world of publishing is crowded. There are . . . things hidden out there. Sometimes you poke these things, and sometimes they're good things that want to publish your manuscript. But sometimes you poke a monster. You can't see it, but you smell its hot breath bearing down on you, for this monster is a giant.
So I figured some fellow stumbler-through-the-dark might appreciate it if I stick a red flashing light on the monsters I've awoken over the years. Not rules for new writers, but things they might want to consider, monsters they may want to watch for.
And here they are, in a handy-dandy 8-point list!
1) WRITING IS ART AND ART IS HARD
My wife and I were recently driving through Denver when she said to me, "I don't get these sculptures scattered around the city. It's just random junk thrown together. Makes me feel like I could quit my job and become a sculptor."
I used to hold the same opinion about most modern art. "It's just paint splattered on a canvas."
Except it isn't. It's purposeful; there is technique. What my wife and I weren't 'getting' is that an artist spends years, even decades, learning a craft. They know that strategically placing a certain color in a certain position draws the eye in a certain direction. The artist, in essence, manipulates the viewer without the viewer being aware that he or she is being manipulated. You know you love Picasso, but you might not know why beyond the vague "I think his pictures are pretty." Lots of pictures are pretty. But why is Picasso's work prettier than, say, Joe-Blow Paintbrush? Because Picasso knows things about his craft that the average person doesn't. The same applies to modern writers.
Too often, I and other people have thought, this is what I love, and love is never hard.
Is that a really big halo or is your head in the clouds? Art is hard. It's very, very hard. If it wasn't, nobody would care about it. Art's value lies in exclusivity, either through specialized knowledge or a talent that must be developed over long periods of time. Face facts: You aren't J.K. Rowling, there's a ton of work ahead of you, your first (and second and third) story is going to suck, and rejection is going to become a close personal friend. Nobody picks up a basketball for the first time and joins the NBA. Writing is no different.
You are literally competing with the entire English speaking world and then some. Publishers receive thousands of submissions a year from every English speaking country in the world. They also receive translations of authors who don't speak English. Competition is fierce, my friend. It's probably the biggest monster roaming the dark.
But that's okay; that's how it should be. The key is to mentally prepare yourself. This is a marathon, not a casual jog through the park. Get ready.
2) LEARNING THE TANGO BEFORE THE TWO-STEP
Forget marketing, forget learning the publishing world, writing for a specific audience, making money, a career, or anything else that isn't specifically aimed at writing a fantastic story. It's easy to get caught up in the accouterment of the writing world and to get distracted from actually being a writer. Worry about mastering the basics of writing. Then worry about mastering the basics of storytelling. Leave the other stuff for last.
Noah Lukeman puts it well in his book The First Five Pages (Fireside, 2000):
"Many writers spend the majority of their time devising their plot. What they don't seem to understand is that if their execution - if their prose - isn't up to par, their plot will never even be considered."
3) RESIST INSTANT GRATIFICATION . . .
. . . if your goal is to build a career out of writing.
As I said above, writing is hard. So when I started out, I was looking for some kind of affirmation that, despite this fact, I was good at it. For that, I looked to getting short stories published. I had written maybe two or three pieces of fiction in my life before I submitted a story called Control to a webzine contest. And it won. 1st place. Whoooooo-hooooooo. Time to quit my job!
Only . . . no.
Winning a writing contest held by a website that very few people read is not a huge victory; it's a small one. It gave me confidence out the wahzoo. Which motivated me to write more.
So far so good.
But I didn't get the whole time-to-develop thing. Control is, if I'm being honest, fun but kind of horrible. It's amateurish. And, thank you Internet, it is forever 'out there'. It's featured on a defunct (but still active) website, the owner of which left no contact info, and someone researching me can find it. Something I wrote long before I figured out how little I knew is forever representing me as a writer now. Because a reader may not make the distinction. Let's say someone reads my current work (a reader, but more likely a publisher I'm querying for a new novel idea) and decides to find more of my stuff. If they hit Control, expecting to find something similar to what they just read, they will be disappointed.
Publications stick with you. Getting a publication feels great, but it's a feeling that will fade, and might even mutate into regret, given enough time. Don't be afraid to stick a story in the trunk. Don't be afraid to write the next one, and the next one. Send it to some top tier publishers if you think it worthy (at least give your story the benefit of the doubt by working from the top down), but consider this: if you're just starting out, a rejection from Shimmer Magazine can be better for your career than an acceptance from WeHaveFifteenReaders.com.
Not that teeny-tiny publishers don't have their place. This isn't a rule (Hulk smash rules!), but rather, as the title suggests, something to consider. Some of them produce great content. Some of them nurture and guide young writers. And I'm forever grateful to the guy who thought Control was good enough to pay me for it. Not everyone writes stories with a career in mind. Some people just want a place to display their work, and that's all gravy, baby.
4) PAY TO PLAY PUBLISHING
There are six gazillion publishers out there. Most don't pay. These are often called FTL (for the love) markets, and generally have very few readers. These are whatever. Some are good, most are somewhere between dismayingly horrible and only-okay, and they often fall into the instant gratification/a place to display your work for friends and family to read category.
But then there are shared profit publishers. Mostly found in short fiction, these publishers promise to pay you X% of the profits from the sale of your work. No advances, no guarantees. But it sounds good. The word royalties comes into play, and suddenly I'm picturing monthly checks from my publisher. In my head, sales are good, because I'm gonna market it like crazy, and so is everyone else associated with this project.
Except this: Publishers do this because they are unsure of their own product, what their own involvement will be, and if they can actually find someone to shell out $18 for a small press book, possibly littered with inexperienced authors, when that person can buy a similar book with proven authors for $15. This leads to publishers marketing to their own authors more than the general public, with a goal of pushing overpriced contributor copies onto the very people the profits are supposed to benefit: the writers. Not a great sign in my opinion. It reminds me of pyramid schemes, or Mary Kay, forcing 'employees' to push products on friends and family, exploiting personal relationships as a sales technique. I've heard of authors spending a lot more money on buying contributor copies than they earned in royalties, indicating that the publisher is dependent on selling to their authors.
In my experience (I participated in 2 such payment structures early on), the result is MAYBE one royalty check for MAYBE ten dollars, but more likely nothing. Remember, it's profit sharing. That means that the publisher first recoups their investment, which can include paying an editor/owner salary. It's the money they make after that is paid, in small percentage, to the author.
Now, this is more along the lines of information than warning. You might not get paid, or you might. Just be aware that what you do is work. Love it or hate it, it is work and it is valuable. Don't give it away to publishers who have little faith in their own products.
As a general hack for researching potential publishers:
Look for investments in advertising, website, previous products, and guaranteed payments/advances to authors - these are signs that someone is invested, possibly heavily, into ensuring your words reach readers. Being paid isn't simply about making money. It's about an indication that the publisher can actually fulfill a purpose: getting your words into the hands of real people.
5) ART & MAKING MONEY: The Illogical Taboo