What do you mean sacrifice?
Isn’t becoming a successful writer — speaking here specifically of publishing your books commercially through major houses — all about winning? Money? Fame? A shot at being on Oprah?
Not so much.
Writing and selling your book, or books, is a terrific and exciting journey and one thousands of us make every year.
But even those who insist on self-publishing (even the super-successful like Amanda Hocking) learn the hard way it’s never an easy route.
A fixed definition of success
The best-seller list? Only the tiniest fraction of us will get there. Huge sales? Ditto. The thrill of your family and friends beaming with pride? That’s a for-sure. Whatever you hope for your book, don’t attach your ego or future income stream to any specific outcome. Let the process unfold, even while working your hardest on every aspect of promotion, marketing and sales. You may not hit it out of the park the first, second or third time. But a solid single or double is something to be proud of and may still be sufficient to win your next contract.
This might be the biggest and most important of all. The paradox of writing a book for public consumption — and skilfully fielding the resulting media attention you need to sell it — demands an ego strong enough to firmly believe that there are readers out there eager to hear your ideas. But along the way, your ego is likely to visit the woodshed more than a few times. Your agent may ask for multiple revisions of your proposal. The proposal may never sell. The book may sell but require significant revision; one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read, “Absolutely American”, was rewritten twelve times, the editor told a writers’ conference, before it made the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Or the publisher might simply refuse it as “unpublishable.” It happens. You must be prepared to work closely for many months with your agent, editor, copy editor and publicist. It’s much more of a team sport than it appears.
You might need to shelve fantasies you’ve harbored for years. It’s important to dream, and dream big. But the process of moving from idea to manuscript to bookstore can look a lot different from your cherished dream or that of your writing friends. Be open to it!
Authors get book tours, right? Authors get on all the big TV shows. We travel far and wide on our publisher’s dime. Not! The average first-time advance for a new author of a trade book is low, as low as $15,000 to $20,000 — paid in four installments, each with 15 percent taken out first by your agent. Do as much homework on the publishing industry as you possibly can, attending writers’ conferences, reading wise blogs, devouring smart books like “Thinking Like Your Editor” so you’re heading into the fray well-prepared. The most successful authors are also those who know how to work within the system, and become the writers their agent and publicist and editor look forward to working with again. This tough business is no place for naievete.
It is hard to overstate how much time it takes, usually, to get a book from the inside of your head into a bookstore. Like — years. Let’s say you have a fabulous idea and, within weeks of having it (and already having built your “platform”, the gazillions of readers who already know and love your work) you’re fortunate enough to find an agent you can work well with. (It’s not always automatic.) They will want you, for non-fiction, to produce a proposal, which can run up to 30 pages or more and must include at least one sample chapter. The months you spend polishing the proposal will require a steady income from elsewhere. Even after you have sold your book, the first advance payment may take several months to show up. Then, when you think the book is finished, you may need to revise it to your editor’s liking for weeks or months.
If you have another steady source of income allowing you to focus solely on producing and polishing and promoting your book, terrific! If not, where’s that funding going to come from? This is the money you’ll need for a variety of expenses: researchers, assistants, FOIA requests, travel for your own research, creating and updating your book website, planning and executing a book tour, polishing the book between advance payments (that can take up to a year.) You may find funding from grants and fellowships, or teaching or a full-time or part-time job. But be sure to have several thousand dollars at the ready for all of these costs. You have one shot at making your book the best it can possibly be. This is not the time to cheap out!
If you really want to produce, you’ve got to plant your bum in the chair. That means not: having coffee/lunch/dinner with your friends or colleagues, taking vacations, going to movies or shows or concerts. It may mean missing out on all sorts of fun things you’d really rather do. Not while you’re on a book deadline! That date is no joke — an entire team of people you may never meet (from the production editor to the sales team) — are relying on you. Your spouse or partner and your kids and friends and relatives may really not get it. Writing is easy, right? You can do it later, or tomorrow, or between the kids’ naps or playdates. Maybe. Maybe not. Stay in close touch with other ambitious and successful writers. They know what it takes, and will steer you back to the computer.
These range from laundry and exercise to a tempting new job or lucrative or fun assignment. Every writer knows we have to shut down other sources of income and projects demanding our time, energy and attention. Something, and often many things, are competing for our time, which is limited. If you’re an avid volunteer, you may need to withdraw or scale back for a while. No matter how tempting these sirens, stay focused on your book!
Here’s a great blog post about a new book that really explains the trade publishing industry in the U.S. and U.K. Every would-be author needs to read it!