Encouragement for aspiring authors: foolishness will eliminate most of your competition

Aspiring authors eager for encouragement can be glad of one thing, which I can promise will never change: human nature. Most of their competitors—other writers vying to win readers—will fail to capitalize on the opportunities they’re given. They will consider themselves too talented to be overlooked, too intelligent to take advice, and too exceptional to fail.

Day after day, I receive queries from authors whose books were published, either traditionally or nontraditionally, but then languished without appreciable sales. These writers took or were given their chances and did not make the most of them. Usually, they haven’t recognized or tried to rectify the problems that kept their books from reaching or appealing to readers. When it’s too late, they want someone else to repair the damage.

I don’t often hear from unsuccessful authors who know exactly where they stand. I’m contacted by those who are mystified by book buyers’ disappointing reactions to their work. Oblivious to the reasons, these particular writers remain confident that fairytale success will find them if only they believe in themselves.

No amount of testimony by successful authors whose years of struggle and relentless practice enabled their careers will convince a writer who doesn’t want to face the unpleasant aspects of the business of creative writing. The obstacles include endless revisions and rejections, critical scrutiny, meager pay, and a market robust enough to cater to readers’ every whim rather than every writer’s wallet. Unwavering perfectionism, sincere humility and willingness to learn, and the ability to connect with audiences are rare qualities even in the most talented writers. That’s why there are so few success stories, compared to failed attempts, in book publishing. The coincidence of necessary personal and professional qualities is truly unusual.

Occasionally, good writers do recognize how much effort and time it will cost them to achieve the careers they envision, and the realization paralyzes them. They may believe they can’t handle the pressure or the demands on their time, that the market isn’t fair, or that their aspirations are self-indulgent. I have more sympathy for them than for the failed author who is hobbled by a big ego. The fact remains that authors today have more choices and resources than ever before to enable their success. Along with those choices and opportunities goes the personal responsibility to make the best use of them.

Sounds true, you say, but where should a writer who honestly wants to improve seek reliable, free advice? Here are a few good sources.

Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published by Jane Friedman

Online Critique Groups for Writers

A Flowchart For Diagnosing Self Publishing Problems by Morris Rosenthal

Author Marketing Experts, Inc.

Lion of St. Mark
Lion of St. Mark

3 Replies to “Encouragement for aspiring authors: foolishness will eliminate most of your competition”

  1. Thanks for the reminder about Friedman’s comprehensive article. I read it again, and like the resources and ideas she shares. The material she provides provies a useful reminder about marketing issues that writers could and should assess early in their project.

    What do you think of her view that writers need an agent (at a five-figure cost) if they aim to snare a contract with a major publisher, but otherwise they could go it alone and pitch work directly to a possible publisher?

  2. Hi, Marsha. Jane’s advice about agents presumes the author lives in a country where an agent’s involvement is the norm when an author is dealing with a major publisher. You’re asking an agent; therefore, I’m likely to be biased. So, let me suggest you consider instead the opinion of an agented novelist, Hilary T. Smith, who wrote “Playing for the house: An editorial assistant on the dangers of going agent-free.”

    There are two other presumptions in your question.

    One, that an agent would cost the author five figures, assumes that a new author is likely to obtain a $70,000 advance against royalties. (I believe this is your interjection, as it doesn’t appear Jane Friedman is suggesting a figure.) An advance of $70,000 is far from typical for a debut author, although relatively few astronomical advances might drive up the mathematical average. In 2015, agent Jenn Laughran estimated typical advances in the U.S. for children’s book authors. Back in 2010, I linked to several authors’ posts detailing their income. Advances have not increased since then.

    I can speak only for myself, but almost every time I’ve negotiated a publication agreement on an author’s behalf, the difference between what the publisher initially offered and what I was able to obtain for the author covered or exceeded the cost of my commission fee. However, when a book hasn’t gone over well and the author is desperate for a publisher, there is very little potential for leverage. Everything depends on the perceived value of the author and the book.

    The second presumption, if I understand the phrasing of your question, is that all aspiring authors’ manuscripts are suitable for major publishers. Nearly every aspiring first-time author believes his or her work is likely to be so valuable, but in reality most authors’ books sell by the hundreds of copies rather than the thousands. In certain cases, it can be immediately apparent that the market for a book limits its potential sales. In most cases, publishers can estimate a manuscript’s value to them based on past experience. The largest publishers in the world are quite good at predicting how much a book is worth and, thereby, avoiding unnecessary risk.

    Remember, not by a long shot are we talking about what the book is worth to the author or how many years of work went into the manuscript and what the author would like to earn as an annual salary.

    Let’s assume for a moment that the author’s reason for wanting to go it alone is based on reluctance to trust intricate contract negotiations to a stranger, the agent. In that case, I’d recommend that the author read and memorize agent Richard Curtis’s book How to Be Your Own Literary Agent: An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Of course, a few things have changed since the book was written, but it remains a good primer on just one important aspect of an agent’s work.

    I’ve written about “Adult trade publishers that encourage direct (unagented) submissions.” If an author chooses to go it alone and a publisher offers a contract, then the author should have little difficulty enlisting an agent’s assistance with negotiations. Of course, the advance being offered to the writer would need to make the deal enticing enough to be worth the agent’s time and effort; otherwise, the agent might be willing to charge a flat fee for a simple contract review. (Note: these are not the reading fees against which new writers are so often rightly warned.) The Authors Guild provides a free contract review service for its members. Some IP attorneys who specialize in book publishing will handle a contract review for a flat fee. Agent Janet Reid has good advice for an author in this situation.

    A writer can burn bridges inadvertently by approaching publishers directly. At the very least it’s necessary to keep a list of all the editors and imprints contacted, in case an agent becomes involved and requests the list later on, and for other reasons as well.

    I think it’s obvious that most authors don’t have agents. Perhaps they don’t want them, or perhaps they can’t get agents, or perhaps they no longer work with their agents. Whether an agent is necessary ultimately is a determination made by the author. Whether the author who wants one actually can get an agent mostly is a factor of the perceived value of the author’s work.

  3. Thanks for the additional information and links. Having once been a manager of a bookstore, I find it odd when I meet people who want to get published but who have little idea of what’s valued in the market, in terms of regional or national trends.

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