Dream of becoming a published author? Read this

"The Sower," Simon & Schuster logo, ...
“The Sower,” Simon & Schuster logo, circa 1961 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, it’s great. It’s really exciting. It is.

But then there’s this:

Drug-addicted beauty writer Cat Marnell has landed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for her memoir, “How to Murder Your Life.” Marnell, who has been in and out of rehab for her addiction to prescription drugs, famously told us she’d rather “smoke angel dust with her friends” than hold down a full-time job after being fired from Jane Pratt’s Web site, xoJane.com. Now she has chronicled her sexual and narcotic adventures in a book, to include her life as a spoiled rich kid of a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst and her drug-fueled rise through Condé Nast, xoJane.com and Vice magazine…The proposal details her numerous sexual conquests [and] four abortions.

Because, you know, get-up-wash-face-work-hard-sleep-repeat is so…..vanilla. Who cares?

And then there’s the inevitable email I got yesterday, giving me 25 days to buy back several thousand unsold hardcover copies of my second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published on April 14, 2011 in hardcover and July 2012 in paperback.

They’re being offered to me very cheaply, but I don’t have a spare few thousand dollars right now, nor the deep desire to fill every square inch of our garage with unsold books.

This is stuff you rarely hear about publicly because who dares admit envy of an advance orders of magnitude bigger than yours? For self-indulgent shite?

And no one will even publicly admit that their book didn’t sell out, because then…OMG….you’re a failure! Facebook is like sticking pins in your eyes every day if any of your friends — and this is common among established writers — have indeed become best-sellers. “Friends” being, you know, a word with some variance.

One of them keeps crowing and crowing and then another and then another and you start to think the only thing that seems obvious: “I’m such a loser!”

Um, no.

My publisher, (bless their enthusiasm!), printed too many. Partly because that’s just when e-books began taking off and we sold many more (cheaper) e-books out of the gate than hardcovers. We’re also still in a recession and my book is about low-wage labor so many of my would-be readers might have balked at shelling out the dough for the hardcover; there was a four-week wait list for it at the Toronto Public Library, a friend there told me.


Hardcover book gutter and pages
Hardcover book gutter and pages (Photo credit: Horia Varlan)

The publishing industry is a moving target and every single book they choose to publish is a gamble, a guess and some tightly-crossed fingers.

Yes, some authors — Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, et. al. — are safe bets. They’ve become like major league baseball teams, winning franchises. But I know of one best-selling author (I’ve seen the numbers) whose two previous books barely sold more than 1,000 copies before she Hit It Big.

So you never know.

So, this week, feeling foolish and weary and yet, and yet, and yet…working on my book proposal. I will never get $500,000 for any book I propose. To even get $100,000 would be a lovely thing, but also nothing I can expect.

So, as my new agent said, “If you’re really burning to write this one”…

And I said, “Yes, I am” and she said:

Burn, baby, burn!

47 thoughts on “Dream of becoming a published author? Read this

  1. Woof. My game plan of hard work, sobriety, and provident living is looking less and less a good idea all the time…

    Sidenote: New agent! Yes!

    1. Thanks. I just don’t see the financial benefit — I have to lay out all that cash in advance, wait for sales and pay shipping. Not really my cup of tea.

      Thanks for the encouraging words.

  2. Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    Thanks to Mr. Blake, and to you and your new book. And now I’m going to get my hands on a copy of “Malled”.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I was also trying to write a book. But several of my friends warned me it would have been a lot of work for a disappointing result. Indeed, I have many examples around me where some of my fellow journalists spent months writing a book that was a total failure in library. The only thing interesting with a book is your personal publicity. If the topic is sensational, unfortunately. So, I’ve seen two cases where there was a lot of noise around the book because it was sensationalist, where the authors were invited to speak everywhere, but their books hardly sold.

    1. It is a total crapshoot!

      You have to: 1) know your subject really well; 2) be able to live/survive financially while you write and promote it (that adds another year to the project after it’s accepted by the editor); 3) be AMAZING in every form of media (social, radio, TV, print) to promote the hell out of it (unpaid, of course.) 4) be prepared for “failure” whatever that looks like. And do everything in your power to avoid it.

      I think it’s worth it, but I have many reasons for wanting to write more books beyond fame (my name is known) and fortune (hahahahahahahahaha.)

  4. KM

    Good reality check, for sure, but also encouraging in the sense that a book or an author can do well even if not in traditional sales.
    Best of luck with the new one, hope it does well!

  5. I love your outlook on life. You have such a positive, realistic, non-defeatist attitude that is both impressive and inspiring. You take setbacks with a well-this-sucks-but-it’s-not-the-end-of-me attitude and you get right back up and keep on doing what you know you’re good at. That’s a quality that I really admire and a sure sign that you’ll continue to have many more successes in life.

    1. Thanks!

      There are many days I feel enormously frustrated by my lack of progress. But, really, what are you going to do? Crumple in a corner? It sure doesn’t pay the bills. And so often an hour or so later something positive happens to lift my spirits again. People are surprised that I often refuse to give up…I am surprised how easily others do!

  6. I’m just curious as to who they think is going to actually buy that drug-fueled mess: sounds like 100% reality TV, and I can’t imagine that audience rushing out to Barnes & Noble for anything but the latest issue of People or Star. Makes you wonder if the book isn’t just a technicality for selling it as a movie, which the publisher maybe gets a cut of.

  7. Write it! I will buy the e-book! Please forgive me for referencing a children’s movie, but whenever I read your blog, I feel like Anton Ego when he takes his first bite of ratatouille in the movie, Ratatouille… PERSPECTIVE! Thank you.

  8. I figured that writing — be it fiction or non-fiction (Journalists don’t get paid that much as far as I’ve seen) — does not earn well enough (except for a few select best authors). But still I chose to write. Probably it’s because it’s what I love and I’m too motivated by late Steve Jobs’ words “Do what you love!”

    By the way, what are the differences between paperback and hard cover books?

    1. The difference is look, feel and price. Hardcover are published first (in the US at $25 or so); then a year later (traditionally), the paperback version is released at $15 or so. E-books are sold right from publication date. It may all change in the next few years.

  9. It just goes to show the grass is not always greener on the other side. I live and breathe the dream of being a writer, but seeing tid-bits like these are always refreshing. It makes me take a step back, take a deep breath, and realize it happens when it happens, you can’t force it, push it, or demand it. Not only that, but like with any job – I’m sure there are major stressors and annoyances that one has to deal with daily.

    Thank you for a great inside peek to being a published author! Really makes me think 🙂

    1. Once you have the experience of being commercially published, you will never ever see it with starry eyes again. Like all authors, I get barely 10 percent of my cover price in royalties — so it can take years (usually never) to “earn out” an advance, even a low one, while the publishers make $$$. I saw the price of my first book almost double in nine years — with not an extra penny for me.

      You have no idea. This is truly just a peek. 🙂

      1. That seems criminal to me. I understand that publishing companies need to make money off of books, but what about the authors that have spent endless time and energy in producing a book? While writing isn’t about profit per say, it still would be nice to have a wallet padded so one doesn’t have to juggle both a full-time job and a writing career. Ugh, why am I not surprised that things are (once again) not always what they seem. Even knowing this, I strive to be published one day. I would love for my words to be out there and meet others’ words 🙂

      2. I can only imagine! I’m sorry I didn’t mean to imply that writing shouldn’t generate profit.. simply that many writers write for the love of writing, but also need to make a paycheck.

  10. justaweirdthought

    thanks a million for telling all this. I also dream of becoming a writer one day, after i finish my graduation. I always thought that one has to hit the bull’s eye in the first attempt itself and this made me worried as to what if they turn me down or anything like that. But now I think I will try again if I don’t succeed in the first shot. I still have to polish my writing abilities. I have a long way to go before i actually think of getting published.

      1. justaweirdthought

        I read the post by Kristen Lamb that you suggested. It was really inspiring and informative. Thanks again. I like the way you write your blog. It is interesting to read.

  11. i have finally taken your advice and greatly cut back on facebook and daily blogging in order to focus on my novels. so many posts were very well enjoyed, but i began to count the words, so so so many words, that went into those posts that could have been revisions and chapters. as you pointed out previously, the instant gratification of blogging had to be pushed aside, and it was not easy.

    now, i’m posting chapters and getting feedback on those, and i have about ten great beta-readers who are following along. i know the dangers of a book being already “published” when it’s on a blog, but i spoke to an editor about how to work around that.

    so thanks again for the kick in the head that you gave me a while back. i think it’s working now.

  12. I think I’d be more than willing to have a couple books only sell a thousand copies before I “hit it big”…! 🙂 and that’s the joy of writing. I’m burning to write right now, better get back to it…thanks for the post!

    1. By the title of your blog, though, you have only yourself and your wallet to consider…if you are hoping to sell books to an agent and a commercial house, you have to have a decent track record of sales or no one will work with you. That’s the challenge.

      1. True that! I haven’t self-published or anything yet, still working on networking and netting an agent before the end of the year. For now, I’ll keep helping self-published writers and publish mine (self or traditional) once it’s “ready”…whenever that is. Challenge accepted!

  13. The other piece rarely spoken about is how *small* average advances are. Yes, it’s a crapshoot, one that often leaves me scratching my head. Writing has to be a labor of love, it certainly isn’t a get rich quick (or even slow) plan. Wishing you the very best with the new proposal!

  14. People read for many different reasons–escapism and voyeurism being two of them. Oh, so she had four abortions? I already feel better about my life…We write for our own reasons, which will match up with what readers want at some moments and not others. It isn’t that everyone really prefers reading cheap tell-alls, but perhaps more people want a good bit of escapism more often than good information. That shouldn’t diminish the value of being able to provide something else: solid information, or unique viewpoint, or a sublime piece of literary imagination.

    Being a a writer can be about how many people love us, but that’s bound to be hard on the self esteem. It’s perhaps more useful to see what we do as enriching the lives of readers: after all, they aren’t reading our work as a homework assignment. They chose to do so, probably for a good reason. So you only enriched the lives of thousands of people instead of millions? So what? You weren’t running for prom queen. You offered something of value. And people bought it for that reason.

  15. Your honesty is what brings me back to your blog again and again. Thanks for taking risks and drawing an accurate picture of your experience of journalism and writing.

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