So this week I head off to the 2019 James River Writer’s Conference in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. (I’ll post my finalized schedule before Friday, promise…) It got me thinking about how there is going to be a lot of writerly advice given at this event, which is fantastic if you are looking to launch a career in storytelling, reboot your authorial pursuits, or take yourself in an entirely new direction with your word-herding.
Thing is, even when you are hearing from the experts, it’s never a bad idea to ask questions.
You see, an author lamenting over her unexpected twists and turns in the publishing industry really hit me in the feelz. I mean it — I felt for this author who was coming clean in this hardcore Medium Mea Culpa as success, much like Shakespeare described it in Twelfth Night, had been thrust upon this author.
But then, she said this…
“Did anyone working with me — agency, publishing team — tell me that a sumptuous advance was not something I should depend on or get used to? Or that, in fact, it’s extraordinarily common in the publishing industry for untested debut writers to be paid large sums that they may never see again? No. Did anyone in the publishing house take me under their wing and explain to me how the company made decisions about future book deals? No. Did the publisher tap a more seasoned author on their list to mentor me, as many major corporations encourage within their companies? No. Did the MFA in writing program that I was part of, in any way, arm me with the knowledge to protect and advocate for myself in the publishing world? No.”— How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying
When looking at how much money was exchanging hands, I’ll play Devil’s Advocate and say “There’s plenty of blame for everyone to enjoy…” but to run down this laundry list of people involved and then say for your own faults “I was young and foolish…” and (my personal favorite) “I really wanted to live in New York City…” triggered me harder than a Penny Dreadful fan listening to a Game of Thrones fan whine about the ending of their eight-season epic fantasy. While it was a pretty crazy ride for this author — because, yeah, two six-figure contracts back-to-back would make my head spin — I call “Shenanigans!” on her. Your publishers, agents, and educators didn’t educate you on some important details about how advances work and how writing careers can ebb and flow. Shame on them. However, five minutes on this thing called Google could have offered you a few things to consider. Shame on you.
Am I being harsh? Bitter? Jealous? We could argue that, but this author states her fateful journey started roughly five years ago. 2014, at the time of me writing this. When I first came into publishing in 2001, public wi-fi was something of a dream; but back then, I had a manuscript that I wanted to get published. The Internet was out there as an option, but two other options existed: libraries and bookstores. I went out and picked up three books on how to get published. My three books were written by…
- An editor (who offered a very clinical breakdown of what happens to your book when going through the submission process)
- An agent (who went deep into the business of publishing books)
- Two science fiction authors (and that book was called The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, featuring authors Karl Schroeder and Cory Doctorow, I kid you not.)
While all three books covered the process of getting a story published, each title offered different perspectives on how the business of books works. Common threads across them included the importance of contract negotiations, a few tips on financial planning, and some straight talk about an author’s career. I also remember a common thread being the detailed breakdown of what advances are and how they work.
Last time I checked, we had libraries and bookstores in 2014, along with a lot of the books about publishing were on the shelves there. And by 2014, the Interwebz was everywhere. On your phone. On your iPad. On your gaming console. In your car. In your refrigerator. In your smoker because, goddammit, I want to know at all times what I am smoking and when it will be ready so I can GIT THAT BRISKET IN MY BELLAH!!! Data is everywhere, and if you spent a focused day on the Internet, you can learn a lot.
But before you start researching, it is a good idea to do what my trainer is a staunch believer in: prep work.
“Now wait a minute, Tee,” you might be asking, “are you saying I need to research my research?”
Yeah. I am.
It’s not overkill. It is a good idea to ask questions about where this publishing advice you’re getting is coming from. It’s no different than streaming. When I, an Affiliate Streamer with just over a year’s experience in streaming under my belt, I wrote Twitch for Dummies as a beginner’s guide, breaking down the details behind how to stream, how to build a presence for yourself, and what to do when you hit that “GO LIVE” command in Streamlabs or OBS. While I offer some tips on making your stream grow, I keep it simple. Now, what if you’re already streaming and you’re looking to grow your stream into a full-time pursuit. Sure, I cover that, but I would suggest a book like The Grind. Why? It’s author, Jeffrey “MaximusBlack” Johnston is a full-time streamer, having first gone live in 2011; and while The Grind does touch (briefly) on getting started, the book feel geared more for someone who is looking to level up. Both Twitch for Dummies and the Grind share common threads, but both my voice and Johnston’s are unique in our approaches.
But right next to titles covering the business of writing are books promising the “sure-fire strategy to bestselling author” books. These books should always be questioned. Ruthlessly.
Otherwise, you wind up in a situation I found myself in at one writers’ conference a few years ago…
Anxious to learn about taking my career to the next level, I was looking over the schedule and found a writer in attendance offering a seminar on writing books that made bestseller lists. I was skeptical but someone I trusted implicitly vouched for the speaker. Considering the reputation of the conference itself and the person endorsing her, that was good enough for me.
The talk was packed. Standing Room Only. I was impressed…until about ten minutes into the talk. Our host author focused on things like “establishing yourself as an authority” and “find subjects you are passionate on” which, yeah, you could say writers do that with any writing project. My problem, though, was her subject matter was supposed to be on developing strategies on making “Bestseller” lists. Period. This talk used as examples books on knitting, gardening, and the like.
So I raised my hand. And things went downhill quickly…
ME: You’ve covered a lot of strategy for non-fiction writers, but what about fiction writers?
BESTSELLER GURU: Well, I don’t write fiction, so I really don’t have any strategy for that.
ME: *nods* So, to be clear, you used this strategy for your books to hit the New York Times’ Bestseller List?
BG: No. I’ve never hit the New York Times’ Bestseller List.
ME: USA Today’s Bestseller List?
ME: May I ask which Bestseller List?
“Amazon Bestseller” might seem to be a legitimate goal for writers considering how Amazon remains the online juggernaut of book sellers, but truth be told, it isn’t all that crash-hot awesome. I’m an Amazon Bestseller but no, I do not refer to myself as a “Bestselling Author” as that term is usually associated with New York Times. As I am processing what she’s just revealed, I look around. There was no subtle escape from this talk, so I decided to do what was best for the moment, pulled out my phone, and looked up this author. What I discovered was that her “Best Selling” titles were all on how to become a bestselling author.
Hard lesson learned: An endorsement from someone you trust is good, but it’s not good research.
A few minutes of focused time on the Internet can offer you a wealth of knowledge. Just make sure where you are getting your information from is reliable. There are a lot of pitfalls involved in any sort of creative pursuit, no matter the kind of content you are producing. Many of these pitfalls can be avoided if you take some time to ask questions. Stupid questions? In my experience as a professional instructor and speaker, there is no such thing. (Inappropriate questions? Now that’s a subject for another time.) Questions are part of prep work, provided your questions are coming from a place of honesty, and not just a “Question Authority” position where your queries are just trying to one-up someone. As for myself, when asked about a topic, I don’t mince words. I expect the hard questions. I welcome the research on me. If I said something in the heat of the moment, then I should be called on it; and either back it up with facts or share what I’ve learned in the time since then. This is what credible professionals and bona fide experts do: They walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Do a little prep work before investing any time and (most definitely) money in a decision or a career.
Speaking of careers, remember the author who inspired this little research-driven rant? She is now offering up her experiences to other authors as a Book Coach. Fancy that.
Never hesitate. Ask questions. It may save you a headache or two.