They did for me.
I was sure I didn't have to learn the business side of things. I'd have a magical fairy god-agent to deal with all the boring stuff.
I started out with a couple of lucky breaks that unfortunately fed my delusions.
I landed an agent with a prestigious agency with my first query letter. And when he left the agency a few months later, I got another just as fabulous. Easy peasy.
Then, while the book was out on submission, I successfully published a second novel as a serial in an entertainment weekly with a substantial circulation. (I got paid per episode and made more money with that novel than my next two combined.)
But the first novel failed to sell and my second agent dropped me. Instead of capitalizing on my successful serial, I frantically tried to get another agent for the same book that had been shopped around by the first two.
Bad move. No agent wants to take on something that's already been rejected everywhere.
Another bad move: I started working on a huge, ambitious novel that took me five years to write instead of putting out more short stories and building up my publishing portfolio. I also disdained nonfiction. I didn't want to be a magazine feature writer.
I was a NOVELIST, dammit!!
But I didn't know that becoming a professional novelist takes a lot more than good fiction writing skills. You also need to learn to write good advertising copy, personal essays, and solid nonfiction pieces.
Plus you need to learn about the publishing business
And it is a business. A life of creating art for art's sake is a lovely plan for an amateur with a secure independent income, but if you want to go pro, you have to learn the business side of publishing.
But I failed to study any of it and I let myself get stuck for years on the query-go-round with my old, rejected book, while I wrote and rewrote my magnum opus
. I entered a few local writing contests, but didn't start submitting stories in a businesslike way. I got a couple more agents, but they couldn't sell my shopworn book.
People kept telling me to join RWA
to find out the ins and outs of the industry (excellent advice, by the way), but I didn't see myself as a romance writer. Instead I signed with a small publisher in the UK that was trying to branch out from erotica into mainstream fiction. It involved getting to travel to England, so I'll never entirely regret my choice, but it didn't lead to financial success.
When I got one of the biggest breaks in my career, I didn't even recognise it as such. It came when a friend found an ad in a literary magazine for columnists for a Canadian writing zine called Inkwell Newswatch.
She urged me to submit a writing sample (Thanks, Dorothy Segovia
!) I wrote my first nonfiction article ever, got the job, and discovered I was pretty good at this nonfiction stuff.
It didn't feel like a big break at the time because I was deep in delusional fantasies of making it big with my second novel, even though by then my UK publisher was foundering. I put tons of energy into launching the book, but the company was soon to go belly-up.
What kept my career afloat? My little columns and articles in magazines and eventually, when the Newswatch
closed its doors, this blog.
Here are some delusion-driven things I did that I still see going on with a lot of beginning writers today.
But hey, I made the mistakes so you don't have to...
1) Taking an Endless Ride on the Query-Go-Round
People who get stuck for years in query hell are often suffering from that "magical fairy god-agent" fantasy that kept me back for so long.
I'm not saying the query process isn't a long, tough slog. Getting an agent takes a lot of querying and not everybody is cut out for self-publishing. (And the most successful self-publishers have agents, too.)
But we need to keep learning and publishing short pieces and writing more books during the query process.
Otherwise we can end up endlessly going nowhere on the query-go-round. That's what happened to me.
I think I developed an addiction to the high you get with that request for a partial...then maybe a full...and then the fantasies you weave while waiting...and waiting...only to have your hopes dashed a year later when you get the form rejection that says nothing. (Agents are very cagy these days. Their rejections are crafted to say nothing but "no thanks." And more and more, they reject with silence. Unfortunately, they've learned that any feedback at all can draw angry retaliation from crazed newbies.)
Other writers get stuck on the query-go-round because they never take the time to learn to write a proper query and synopsis. They're relying on the brilliance of their work to hook the agent. They keep sending out the same letter that calls their work a "fiction novel" and addresses the agent as "To Whom it May Concern" and brags how their book is so much better than "all the crap out there." Their synopsis is ten pages long, but hey, it's okay to disregard agent guidelines when your book is genius.
Or they fall for scams like this one
, which charges $700 to write queries for you. (BTW, all query-mill letters are automatically rejected. Agents can tell.)
Or they do what I did and become so obsessed with query writing, they forget to write better books. They send out queries on the same manuscript for years and hone that synopsis to perfection. They take all the workshops on querying at every writers conference they attend.
They become fabulous query writers and masters of the pitch and the synopsis...but they never write any new books and never get any short pieces published.
They don't want to discover what's really wrong:
- That much-rejected book could be an hidden treasure that might get a contract if the author focused on polishing the book instead of the query.
- Or it could be a finished masterpiece that just needs a better query and synopsis.
- Or it could be a polished book with a killer query, but the genre/theme is not trending right now. When everybody's looking for zeppelins, you've got zombies. Or the other way around.
Workshop the book if you haven't, and then write another one. Maybe not so trendy this time.
- Or look for a small press that specializes in your brand of zombie zeppelins.
- Or self-publish (but not until you've written zombie-zeppelin book #2. It's very hard to market a singleton title as an indie.)
- And if you're querying and have never read the Query Shark or networked with the good people at QueryTracker and Agent Query, do it. They may be your ticket off the query-go-round.
2) Believing Social Media Marketing Schemes will Make you a "Kindle Millionaire"
On the other end of the spectrum from the query addicts are the self-publishers who eat up all those books promising they'll become instant "E-Book Millionaires" by playing clever games with algorithms and social media. Thing is, those "Kindle Millionaire" books are as out of date as a 1970s book tour.
Partying like it's 2009 is not going to get you anywhere today.
There are thousands of online courses and books that promise you instant riches with ebooks and social media. I read some of them and tried some of the tactics after I finally found another publisher. Some of them worked very well. Then.
But nothing is certain in this business (except rejection and bad reviews.) What worked six months ago is probably useless now. And nobody can fulfill a promise that you'll make the bestseller list or become a millionaire.
I know lots of people are still falling for this old advice because I see them all over the place:
- Writers who tweet their books 24/7—or pay somebody to.
- Or constantly spam their FB friends with unwanted book ads (Especially erotica. Please, erotica authors, choose your target audience carefully. Not everybody likes their FB feed full of naked people in handcuffs.)
- Then there are those blogging authors who are always running contests to give away book swag they've overbought and nobody wants.
- Or they give away expensive gift cards to bribe people to "like" their Facebook page—a page those people will never visit again.
- Or they make boring book trailers and hammer friends and family to go "like" the videos on YouTube. Friends and family who are too busy, um, reading books.
- Or they put a ginormous amount of money into a Kickstarter campaign designed to beg for an even more ginormous amount of money to pay a publicist to do all of the above.
- And recently I've had a barrage of Direct Messages from newbie authors who think it's the job of established authors to promote their books and blogs for them.
I suppose there's some new bad advice floating around out there saying: "Author-bloggers who already work 18 hours a day, LOVE to give up their few hours of sleep to promote newbie writers' work for free—especially newbie writers who can't bother to read their blogs or books. Make sure you bully them with phrases like 'I'm counting on you' and 'comment on my blog by the end of the day!' "
Um. No, kids. This is not how to sell books. Maybe some of this stuff worked 6 years ago, but it sure doesn't work now.
Look at what actual successful authors are doing. Hugh Howey built his huge audience by connecting with fans on his blog and Kindleboard forums. Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne Rice have constant interaction with their readers on Facebook. Catherine gives away lots of free books from her blog.
All these bestselling authors are connecting with their fans one-on-one, not "targeting" a faceless "them". Books have to be hand-sold. Marketing schemes don't work unless you're the Big Five and can load every chain bookstore in the world with huge front-of store displays.
And don't tweet your book unless you have news about it. Like that it's free for the next 24 hours, and you just got a rave review from Big Al
Get great advice on what really works in book marketing from experts like Frances Caballo at Social Media Just For Writers
and Penny Sansevieri at Author Marketing Experts.
3) Signing the First Contract You're Offered by an Agent or Publisher. (Especially a Self-Publishing Company.)
In these days of "forever" books and eternal bookshelves, bad contracts are much more dangerous than they were in the pre-ebook days.
You may end up signing away the rights to your book and characters for a lifetime—and even your children's lifetimes.
Some agents and publishers insist that you give them the right of "first refusal" for every word you will ever write. There are lots of bad contracts out there, even with well-known agents and publishers.
And unfortunately, there are lots of incompetent and disappearing agents, scammers, and vanity or "subsidy" publishers eager to lead you astray and deplete your savings.
If you have fantasies of a magical fairy god-agent, you could easily fall prey.
Ditto if you believe the vanity presses that tell you if you just throw enough money into marketing a book, you'll make millions.
educate yourself about the business before you jump in. Join professional writing organizations like RWA
. Keep yourself informed by checking Writer Beware
and Preditors and Editors
If you're thinking of going with a self-publishing company, read this piece from Jane Friedman: 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Book Service
. And this one by Joel Friedlander: Is Your Book Held Hostage by a Subsidy Publisher?
And if you see any clauses you don't understand, especially if they contain the phrase "in perpetuity"—get thee to a lawyer.
4) Chasing Trends
An awful lot of writers have files filled with half-written Twilight
clones, a couple of Dan-Brown artifact-chasers, a YA Dystopian, and 25 ½ Shades of Mommy Porn…with zombies. They never quite finish any of their projects because, well, what they really like is family sagas and women's literary fiction, but everybody says those aren't selling.
Yes, some fast-writing professionals can chase trends successfully. But if you're a newbie, your chances are slim. Most new writers can't produce a marketable book fast enough to cash in on any current trend.
Don't follow trends; set them.
Any subgenre that's on the bestseller list now will be saturated and waning by the time you get a book finished, polished, edited and ready to go.
Write what you love to read, not what's on the bestseller list or a hot TV trend right now. (What's hot on TV was probably trending in publishing a decade ago. Even zombies are stumbling a bit these days
Who would have thought that in the 1990s, an English boarding-school story with Halloweeny characters would ever sell? English boarding school stories went out decades before and fantasy wasn't selling. Besides, where would anybody put Harry Potter
on a shelf? It wasn't horror like Goosebumps or a standard Enid Blyton boarding school story.
I'm sure there were people who told J.K. Rowling, "Joanne, sweetie, it's cute, but that boy wizard stuff will never sell. You should be writing chick lit like Bridget Jones Diary
" or heartfelt women's fiction like Rosamund Pilcher and Maeve Binchley. Or write about dinosaurs. Do something like Jurassic Park
. This is the 1990s. You have to write what people are buying now."
And we would all have been the losers.
Write what you love. Because you love to write it. There is no other reason to write.
5) Expecting Instant Financial Success.
There's no such thing as overnight success. Learning to write stuff people want to read takes way longer than we imagine.
Also, it's increasingly tough to get paid to write. Yes, there are lots more opportunities out there for writers in the digital age, but there's also more competition..and lots more writers working for nothing and giving away free books.
I cringe when I meet writers with fantasies of making a living from writing from the get-go.
- A newbie writer with only a handful of credits vows she'll "never write for free".
- An author who has just finished her first novel brags that she'll only sign with a famous, established agent (newer agents who are building their lists are a much better bet) and they expect a huge advance. (Extremely unlikely. Advances are shrinking fast. )
- After publishing four or five short stories, a writer says he'll never sell to anybody but Asimov's, Ellery Queen, or The New Yorker. (Even wildly successful novelists have trouble making the cut there.)
- Or an author quits her day job after hitting "publish" on her first self-published ebook.
Writers like this may imagine they're practicing the "law of attraction" by acting "as if" and visualizing the big bux, but what they're actually doing is aiming to fail.
If you want to visualize yourself making it to the top of the success ladder, you need to see the whole ladder.
Nobody pole-vaults from the slush pile to the bestseller list—any more than a new hire jumps from the mailroom to the boardroom after their first month.
And now, alas, we live in an era when everybody in this business works for free some of the time. Interns apprentice for no pay in literary agencies and publishing houses. Even full-fledged agents often have day jobs.
Accept that everybody has to start on the first rung of the ladder. Put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours
. And meanwhile check our weekly Opportunity Alerts and get your short work into the marketplace.
If you write nonfic, write for smaller magazines, anthologies, and blogs and collect your clips.
If you write mostly fiction, send those stories out to the non- and lower-paying litzines. And enter contests! The prestige you get from placing in a well-known contest or a prestigious litzine can be worth more to your career than getting a story into a slick, commercial magazine.
Next week I'll talk about five more delusions that plagued my early career and may be blocking your own success.
And we'll have a big announcement about major changes happening with the blog.
What about you, scriveners? Do you recognize any of your own delusions here? What gave you your first reality check as a writer? Did you have any delusions I missed here?