Everyone’s favorite writers’ conferences and how-to-get-published guides gently encourage and inspire. They wouldn’t be as popular if they presented a fully realistic picture of what it takes for an author to succeed commercially—that is, by selling lots of books. As an unfortunate, unintended result, many aspiring book authors are led too soon to believe they’re ready to compete with their idols in the publishing world. I’m conflicted about how to bring this matter up with prospective clients.
The telltale promise that exposes naïve writers every time is, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes for my book to succeed.” They feel compelled to say it, because they haven’t begun to envision and haven’t yet started whatever it takes. Technically, it’s a failure of their imagination. It shouldn’t happen.
My job is to screen out the dilettantes and hobbyists and to coach the thoughtful, devoted, solid professionals who have chosen writing as a career path. Following are some of the questions I try to remember to ask prospective clients when we’re deciding whether we’ll be able to work together.
Takeaway: If you don’t have good answers to these questions, then there’s no need to pitch your manuscript to me. You’re not ready.
How much time can you invest in building your writing career, knowing you’ll simultaneously need to spend significant time earning income? Holding down a day job is not an issue if you have enough passive income or savings to support yourself for more than a few years. Will any of your commitments over the next several years prohibit you from being in the public eye and from devoting a lot of unpaid time to your author platform and your writing? *
Have you already proven you’ll be able to market yourself as an author? Have you developed a following or any sort of name recognition among a sufficiently large group of people who are likely to buy your book? Consider that selling books primarily to the writers in your social circle isn’t an ideal marketing strategy, unless your book happens to be a writers’ manual.
Can you show me articles, essays, or stories you’ve written that were published in journals and magazines or on websites with some traffic? While unremunerative, collecting publication credits can be a quick-start learning experience. By the way, I tell new writers that it’s likely to take sixty submissions to get a first short story or essay published in a selective journal or magazine, including the digital ones.
Do you write a column or blog for a print or online publication? Landing that sort of (typically low-paying) gig demonstrates your ability to network and collaborate with an editor.
Do you have a professional-looking website and an active, engaging presence on significant social media sites? Which authors’ websites are your benchmarks? Don’t think of emulating but learn from the living authors you most admire.
If you’ve made no initial progress on your author platform before contacting me, then I’ll be forced to assume you never will. It takes a great deal of time to acquire the technical and social skills and then to execute a long-term publicity strategy for a career. Many, in fact most, writers aren’t terribly teachable or motivated to work on their techniques for self-promotion, without which their chances of succeeding as a commercial author are just too remote. I’m obligated to choose clients who are prepared to knock it out of the park, not those who have never shown up for batting practice.
I do my utmost to prepare a new client to collaborate successfully with a publisher and with the people who will offer opportunities for good publicity that might increase book sales. The actual work is up to the writer. Some might prefer to find and hire freelancers to help with some of their responsibilities. I don’t recommend delegating tasks, because no one will care more about the success of a book than its author. Usually it’s obvious when there’s no practical possibility that a potential client will follow through on vague promises to hire someone to do the work they don’t want, or don’t know how, to do.
Once a book is under contract, a publisher’s timeline is unyielding. Authors sometimes are asked, for example, to turn around revisions or proofs in as little as two weeks. No one will worry whether those two weeks happen to fall during the author’s annual vacation in the Florida Keys. Grace under pressure is an enormously valuable trait.
I emphasize to new clients the benefit of rolling up their sleeves. If a publishing team begins to sense that their new author isn’t working as hard as they are to launch the author’s book successfully, then the publisher’s staff will shift their focus to another book by another author. Conversely, if an author is going above and beyond anyone’s expectations to generate amazingly creative publicity for a book, then the publishing team will be enthusiastic and motivated, at least to care, even if they don’t have a spare moment to act. The caring part matters. It ripples out. The word spreads. You’ve got to read this one!
Debut authors get one chance to establish their commercial viability. It doesn’t matter whether their first books are self-published or traditionally published. The sales data are inescapable. To the largest trade book publishers, an author was a financial risk who cautiously was given an opportunity to become a profitable investment. If readers didn’t show their approval by purchasing thousands of copies of the author’s book, the record of poor sales becomes all but impossible to overcome. When a book flops, according to the trade book publishing industry’s definition of failure at the time, then commercial publishers won’t invest in the author’s future works. It doesn’t matter how gifted the author is or how much I believe in and like the person. A first-time author is viewed as a more strategic risk than one whose published book hasn’t sold well.
I’ve been through this fantasy-wrecking process with writers who thought they could either a) embark on degree programs, internships, alternate career development, or other major new endeavors while simultaneously building a career as a book author, or b) immediately discard all of their practical plans in favor of a career as a book author, without realizing how slim the chance that writing ever will generate an income sufficient to live on. The illusion of overnight success is the de facto gate beyond which most aspiring authors can’t progress.
These demands might seem unbearable or unfair, but as long as a few good writers are finding imaginative ways to put in whatever effort is required to succeed commercially, they will be the ones setting the bar so high.
How do you plan to manage all of the work ahead of you?
* In case you haven’t noticed, these expectations have an unfair and disparate impact on writers who are not wealthy but desire careers in the arts requiring many hours of labor with little likelihood of financial gain. I already do a lot of pro bono work as an agent, as I’m sure most authors’ representatives do, because we believe in trying to mitigate the existing disadvantages. At least one nonprofit literary agency exists in the U.S. Check it out. Individual publishing houses and arts funding agencies contribute much more to solving this persistent problem.