The Truth About Publishing – 1


Many years ago I wrote a long, detailed article called The Truth About Publishing which set out to explain to beginning novelists how the business of writing and publishing works – basically, to answer all the questions I had when I began writing. The article is sadly out of date now, and publishing is changing at phenomenal speed, so over the next month or two I’m going to bring the article into the modern age.
The biggest problem for new fiction writers is that no one tells you how the system works. Becoming an author, and even a successful one, is therefore a series of shocks as your assumptions are punctured one by one. So here, distilled from my experience with more than twenty publishers around the world, and conversations with many professional writers over the last decade and more, is the truth about fiction publishing. Well, popular fiction anyway – the stuff that sells.
This article isn’t an attack on publishers. A number of prominent writers have recently advocated that authors abandon traditional publishing and simply publish their books themselves, as ebooks. For example, http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/ 
I’m not one of them. The barriers to self-publishing have dropped a lot in recent years, but acquiring all the industry knowledge and taking over all the benefits and services provided by traditional publishers (editorial, design, sales, marketing, strategic understanding of the book market, etc) is hard work and incredibly time consuming. A handful of authors have made a lot of money self-publishing, but invariably these authors are (or have become) professional self-promoters. While every author needs to promote, few can ever be professional self-promoters and, if you become one, you’ll have little time to write your books. 
The best way to promote your work is to write great books. As literary agent Don Maass puts it – ‘The secret to success is simple – please your readers on a regular basis’. http://www.maassagency.com/books.html
After you’ve written that great book, I still believe that the best way for most writers to succeed is to work with a publisher. Though always remember that, like you, publishers are in business to stay in business (ie make money) and, if your books don’t sell, you’re out.
If you’re just writing for the money, in subsequent posts I’ll be explaining how much (in most cases, how little) you get. And ways to make more.
If you’re writing for the glamour, you’re in for an awful shock. For a taste of the brutal reality, see Mortification: Writer’s Stories of their Public Shame (Ed. Robin Robertson, Harper Perennial, 2003). This book details the public humiliation and ignominy heaped on 70 mostly well known writers while trying to promote their books. If it happens to them, it’s bound to be worse for a beginning writer. If you can’t take that kind of treatment, reconsider whether you really want to be a writer. 

I don’t intend this series as a guide to all conceivable forms of fiction publishing. I’m mainly concerned with publication by traditional publishers (print or ebook). The barriers to publication have dropped so far that anyone can write a book and publish it, and good luck to those who want to. But at least traditional publication acts as a filter – books have to meet some quality standard for content, and they have to be professionally edited and presented.
Tomorrow I’ll begin with Part 1: Getting There
The first post (of about 40 that make up the full article) is called Got Expectations? Lower Them.

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