I was having a private email discussion back and forth with another writer who, like me, has found better than average success writing for indie e-publishers. They told me something that so totally resonated with me that yes, I have to share it. They were once given the advice to use multiple pen names and not let on how much they write. Not as in how often their butt is in front of the computer, but how much sheer volume of words they turn out on a regular basis. The reason in a nutshell? It might wig some people out and potentially hurt other writers’ feelings.
I pride myself on being honest with my blog readers when I write about writing topics, but this is something I feel is overdue for discussion, even though I know other bloggers (notably one of my favs here and here) have discussed it before.
1) Don’t quit your day job. Chances are, you won’t make enough money writing to support yourself.
2) You can make a good living as a writer.
Yes, I know, those two comments are TOTALLY contradictory. But, they’re both true. Here’s the thing, the majority of writers, because of life, family, evil day jobs (EDJs), or (honestly) quality of writing, will fall in category number one. What bumps a writer from number one to number two has very little to do with luck or magic thinking or even talent in some cases. It has to do with a lot (a LOT) of hard fracking work.
So along with the bubble-bursting I’m about to do, I promise to give you advice to help you find your own way. Some of you are going to hate me for the things I’m about to discuss. That’s cool, whatever. But I’m not going to lie to you and say yeah, it’s sunshine and daisies and anyone at all can do what I and other writers like me do with no trouble at all.
It’s a lot. Of. Fracking. Work.
Let me say up front I am no Stephen King in terms of income. There is this HUGE fallacy that if someone is a “bestselling author” that they are these rich people. I’ve got news for you, Binky, just because a book shows up on the NYT Bestseller list (which none of mine have yet to date *LOL*) doesn’t mean that writer is rich. Seriously. Especially if they never break the top twenty.
The average mid-list writer doesn’t quit their day job, even if they get an advance, because they know that both their agent (if they have one) and the IRS will get a chunk of that windfall, if they even earn it all at once. It’s not uncommon for a publisher to hold back part of an advance until the book actually hits the shelves. And guess what? You don’t see royalties on a book until the advance has “earned out.” And in today’s market, it’s not at all uncommon for a book to not earn out for several years, if at all. The average writer makes less than poverty-level income from their writing.
1) You are not the next Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, Dan Brown, _________.
You. Are. Not. Quit deluding yourself and go take your meds. “Magically discovered” authors are the rare exception, not the norm. Most “successful” writers (who can claim writing as their sole EDJ to the IRS) got that way through a LOT of hard work over several years.
2) “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile. “ (Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club)
If you start out unpublished thinking you are the best, the most special, the ungodliest super-dooperiest writer out there and any agent or publisher would be fracking crazy not to sign you, you’ve lost the battle before you ever made it to the front lines. You are not better than everyone else. Chances are, you’re not as good as everyone else unless you’ve spent years working on learning the art and craft of writing.
It amazes me how many first-time writers think they are da shit when they wave a crappy manuscript around in the air and berate agents and publishers for not liking them when they never bothered to even print and edit the damn thing because they think they are just. That. Good. (Again, go take your meds.) Bucky, if you don’t know your to/too/two, and your its/it’s from your arse, and you need the apostrophe police to come arrest your sorry self, you need to sit down, shut up, and get to work learning those basics before you can make grand proclamations. Seriously. Dude.
And if you think your work is too good to edit? Phwoar! Think again. Even I–someone who knew I wanted to be a writer for over twenty-five years and spent that time working and honing my craft–know I NEED an editor to look over my work. If you’re a diva right out of the gate, duuude, you’re screwed.
3) “’It’s only after you’ve lost everything,’ Tyler says, ‘that you’re free to do anything.’” (Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club)
Okay, forget “holding out” for a “real” book deal. Seriously. Have you LOOKED at the state of traditional publishers lately? Yes, they take new writers, but revisit my first point again. Then revisit point two. I know some of you reading this ARE able to back up your belief in your ability as a writer with good, solid writing. Good on ya. But trust me, do you really want to spend five or ten years waiting for New York to come knocking, or would you rather write for a living and see your manuscripts published and actually read by people? Not to mention making you money.
Give up the notion of scoring that dream NY contract and instead focus on taking the indie world by storm. You can make money, build a solid readership, then when you try NY again, you can proudly wave your accomplishments in their face and if they still say no, you’ve still got the knowledge that you can and do make sales. It’s the big fish/little pond principle at work. What do you have to lose? You have NOTHING to lose by going indie. “I like the feel of a book in my hands.” Bullshit. I like the look of a royalty check in my bank account. If you’re blessed with an EDJ that pays your bills, maybe you can afford to wait around. I can’t. And with so many people in dire financial straits these days, many other wannabe writers can’t afford to wait around either. So work those indie publishers. Build a following. Learn the business.
4) You’re on your own.
Whether you’re signed at an indie publisher or a big NY house, you. Are. On. Your. Own. It sucks, and it’s not fair, but most publishers will not put advertising and co-op dollars into promoting writers who aren’t A-listers. Some larger indie houses are now taking out group ads for their writers (I’m blessed enough to be a writer for one of them), but for the most part, you’re on your own. You cannot turn in a manuscript and dust off your hands and forget about it. You have to network, hustle, promote, and build your author brand.
5) Writing for a living is not art, it’s business.
If you write because you enjoy it and you write and don’t care if you sell books, then stand aside for those of us who want to make a living at it. Post your “art” on the free reading sites or Lulu.com and quit clogging the slush piles. Seriously. I’m not saying anything others haven’t said before (and I’m sure I’ll get whacked for that one) but frankly, it’s the truth. If you don’t want to get paid, why in the Goddess’ name are you submitting and wasting editors’ and agents’ valuable time? You’re making it harder for us who DO want to make a living at it. You’re like the slow driver in the left-hand lane with their right turn signal on. Move. The. Frack. Over.
6) If you want to make money writing, you HAVE to treat it like any other business.
That means sacrificing family time and play time and Wii time and TV time to plop your ass in front of your computer and put words on the paper on a regular basis. You can’t take ten years to write a book. You need to, seriously, invest in a typing software and learn how to touch type and speed up your production. You need to learn how to self-edit on the fly and not take six months to revise a book once you’ve completed the first draft. You need to learn to write for the money. Which brings me to the next point…
7) If you want to make a living writing, you have to write where the money is.
I learned early on that there is decent money to be made writing erotica. Therefore, I follow the money. I don’t sacrifice the quality of my writing or the depth of my storytelling, I still stay true to myself in those regards. But I don’t write about unicorns if hot Alpha wolf shifters are what’s making money. If my publisher came to me and said, “Okay, possum shifters are the next big thing and we’re selling the hell out of them,” guess what my next book would be? You guessed it, possum shifters.
8) Don’t try to imitate the latest craze.
No, this doesn’t contradict point 7. By the time your book gets out there, it’s been overdone by other writers with the same idea. Be original. If you want to write vampires, write them your way, not the same old hackneyed plot and angst everyone else uses.
9) Don’t take things personally.
Yes, it sucks big hairy donkey balls to hear “no” from an agent or publisher. I know it. It does, I’ve been there, done that. I put in my time and ran the gauntlet of agents and publishers. I’ve got a file full of rejection slips until I made that first sale. However, if you let it crush your soul, you’re ignoring point 6 – writing is a business.
Publishers aren’t going to publish you because they like you or think you’re a great person or have a winning smile or killer personality. They’ll publish you (or not) based on whether that wad of words you dumped into their in box is salable or not, or if it’s salvageable enough (time and effort invested versus cost/potential earnings) to accept. It’s that simple. But if every writer that heard no gave up or let it crush them stopped trying, NONE of us would be published. Seriously. Consider it a badge of honor that you survived the process and get over it.
10) Not everyone will like what you write.
It could be the best, most well-polished manuscript, interesting characters, intriguing plot, kick-assiest story ever published. I guarantee you, SOMEONE will hate it, even if just because they can’t stand you having success. See point 9 – don’t take things personally. It’s a business. Move on. My own mother loves me but won’t read 90% of what I write because erotica is not her thing, and that’s cool, seriously. My husband isn’t into m/m scenes and will skim through those. Again, that’s cool. Some people that love my erotica don’t like my non-erotica. Again, whatever. That’s fine. See point 9.
11) Don’t give up.
If you throw your hands in the air and cry about it, you deserve to fail. Seriously. If you have the drive to make it, the guts to fight through the masses, the mental drive to improve yourself as a writer and seize every opportunity to better yourself as a writer, you can make it. Is it easy? Hell no, it’s not. Don’t. Give. Up.
12) Write your ass off.
Between the time my first book was officially released on 08/08/08 and as of this writing, I’ve got nineteen releases out with several more contracted and pending. More WIPs in the wings awaiting me to finish and submit them. You do the math. That’s an average of a book or more a month. Not all of them were full-length novels, some were short stories and novellas, but still, that’s a lot of copy.
Doing Nanowrimo is great, but it’s not uncommon for me to turn out 10k words or more in a DAY when I’m in a writing cycle. The most I’ve done so far was 80k words in a week. Again, back to this IS my EDJ and I’m in front of my laptop on average 12 to 14 hours a day. Sometimes writing, sometimes editing, sometimes promo and web maintenance. Again, heed my advice about learning to touch type. And the more you write, the better you’ll get at it. I spent several years writing non-fiction for a living, some of that in a journalism environment. When an editor tells you they want a ten-inch column in three days, they won’t accept, “But I have writer’s block!” as an excuse.
I ALWAYS have multiple manuscripts going at once. If I get blocked, I immediately start working on a different one so I’m at least making forward momentum on something. Write something. ANYTHING. Don’t sit there and whine you don’t know what to write about. If you don’t know what to write about, seriously, you won’t become a successful professional writer. My problem (and other successful writers have this as well) isn’t coming up with ideas to write about, my problem is not enough time in the day to do it. People ask me how I keep the ideas straight. Well, it’s my job.
13) Not every book will make you money — live with it.
Don’t let it stop you from taking chances. I have books that have blown me away by how well they’ve done, and I have books that have made me less money than it cost me in paper and toner to run them on my home printer to do the edits before I submitted them. Seriously. It’s a numbers game. And it’s not that the books are “bad” books, but they’re not money books. And that’s okay. It could be any number of things—genre, heat level, lack of visibility—contributing to that. But I don’t dwell on it. I move on to the next project. And it balances out. This goes back to several of the previous points, including don’t give up, write your ass off, and treat it like a business. Move on to the next project, learn from your mistakes, and keep going.
14) Study the market.
You will not change the market. Period. You need to adjust your writing and marketing plan to fit the target audience. You will not sell a fluffy-bunny teddy bear story to hard-core BDSM erotica lovers. It won’t happen. If you want to write fluffy-bunny teddy bear stories, fine, but do your research and try to sell and market them in appropriate markets. The fluffy-bunny teddy bear story lovers likely won’t hang out in the BDSM discussion forums, either.
If you don’t believe me, go cruise the Amazon.com romance discussion forum and read how many people there complain about the amount and kind of sex in Lora Leigh’s stories and in other books technically considered erotica. (Not to pick on her, but that’s just one I recently read.) Um, hello, Lora Leigh’s stories are usually erotica.
Now, it’s not her fault the romance readers are complaining about erotica, but it illustrates the point that you need to clearly market and brand yourself as a writer. (Again, not her fault they picked up her books.) I’ve also heard people who hate paranormal books complain about paranormal books they’ve read. Again, you can’t help that they picked up a book they normally don’t like, but you need to market yourself to try to reach the readers you want to reach.
15) Don’t be a one-trick pony.
Write in different genres, even if it means you think you need multiple pen names to do it. This will help you maximize your earning potential. Someone who hates cowboy stories won’t read them. And if all you write is cowboy stories, you won’t make that sale. But if they love paranormal and you write paranormal, you might pick them up as a reader and they might decide to take a chance on your cowboy stories.
16) Don’t keep sticking a pen in your eye and saying ow and doing it again.
Learn from your mistakes. If you find a publisher isn’t a good fit for you, make a business decision and move on. I’m blessed to have great publishers, and remember, not every publisher is a fit for every story. You don’t take your Ford in to a Chevy dealership for repairs, and you wouldn’t try to sell a BDSM erotica story at a Christian inspirational romance publisher. Seriously. If you write steampunk, find a publisher that will be a good fit. If you write paranormal erotica, find a publisher than handles a lot of it. Check Amazon.com Kindle rankings for authors and stories and publishers.
17) Once you’re published, obsessively check your rankings.
Seriously. At one publisher, I can check my real-time sales data through their site (not the third-party sales though). But at all my publishers, I can check myself on their bestseller lists. I can cruise my Amazon.com rankings. I can check Fictionwise and Mobi and others for the most part, or at least make an educated guess as to where I am. I check my web stats, I look at referral and search landing data. Use the data you get to make business decisions about how to market and seeing what works and what doesn’t. There is no magic bullet.
18) Have fun.
Yes, treat it like a business, but have fun doing it.
19) Indie/e-publishing is REAL publishing.
It puts out REAL books that can be read by REAL readers and earn you REAL money you can buy REAL things and pay REAL bills with. ‘Kay? ‘Nuff said.
Most writers won’t make enough to make a full-time EDJ living writing, or they will give up before they even have a chance to start because of whatever reason. But I’m not a special snowflake—ANYONE can do what I’ve done. Others have done it.
I didn’t write this to discourage you. I didn’t write this to piss you off or start a flame war. I didn’t write this to try to keep you from being successful.
See, here’s the thing, being a “successful writer” isn’t this one-up, top of the heap position you have to heavily defend. There is PLENTY of room at the top for anyone who wants to work their ass off to get there. And believe it or not, there aren’t people standing up there kicking at you if you get too close. They know there’s plenty of room up there and generally, they’re too busy trying to keep themselves up there to worry about whether you make it up there with them or not. Seriously.
I know there’s this myth that writers will backbite each other, well, maybe some do. Fortunately for me, I haven’t seen that happen although I’ve heard urban myths about it. (Edit: 11/28/2015 – Unfortunately, I have seen lots of asshats the past couple of years, but honestly? If you focus on you and your career and building a relationship with YOUR readers, those asshats won’t matter. They’ll be too busy trying to kick at others to work on their own careers, and you’ll pass them anyway.)
I want you to succeed. Why?
Because I’m sick of the stupid asshats claiming that you can’t make a living writing in indie publishing, and I’m sick of the asshats who keep putting down romance and erotica, and I’m REALLY sick of the artsy-fartsy people who claim you can only be a “serious writer” if you write artsy-fartsy writing published by a “real” publishing house. I want to blow the fallacies—good and bad—out of the water so you can wade through the crapload of misinformation and get the information you need to make a successful living doing this.
Let’s prove these jokers wrong. I’m storming the hill, want to join me? Don’t worry, there are no bullets coming at us, just morons lobbing laughable grenades full of skewed, old-fashioned babble. The only thing standing in our way is ourselves. You with me?
(Update: You can find the follow-up post here.)