As someone who is slowly nearing the publication of her first book, my mind is thrown into absolute chaos when I consider the plight of the modern author. We’re currently living in a time where it has never been more complicated or more liberating to be a novelist.
In light of that, this article is going to explore the considerations the modern author must examine: publishing options, being a writer and an editor, author platforms, social media, advances, royalties, vanity publishers and how to balance it all…
Having just started my second novel, I’m really digging deep when it comes to my future as an author. I’m trying to figure out just what this job entails, and where to draw the lines in the metaphorical sand…
Self-publishing vs. Traditional publishing
I’ve been trying to get my novel traditionally published for about a year and a half now. From the beginning, my ‘submissions journey’ was a promising one. It was quite unlike the experiences I’ve heard from other writers and publishing lecturers in that I heard back quickly from about 80% of the houses I approached.
Of the publishers that responded, about 80% of these were interested in the book. They wanted to know more about me, read the full manuscript and ask a range of questions. I was thrilled. For years I’d been told ‘getting published is hard’ and ‘don’t quit your day job’ (among other useless pieces of advice), and yet here I was, taking my first shot, and things were looking good.
What I discovered a little further down the track is that getting a publisher to commit to a completely unknown, new writer is really really hard. Yes, I know, that’s what everyone says. But after such a promising start, I began to think perhaps people were wrong. Turns out, they weren’t.
A year and a half later, people are asking me, ‘Why not self-publish?’ With today’s technologies, it’s more possible than ever before to find success in this arena. So why not?
I’m in the lucky position of knowing more about book production and marketing than the average author, thanks to my work for Writer’s Edit and my Masters of Publishing. I’ve also already got an established author platform and a supportive writing community. So self-publishing is definitely something I’ve considered.
Not too long ago, I had an offer on the table for my book. It wasn’t with a conventional publisher, but it was something. I was speaking to the lovely Kyra Bandte (our Deputy Editor at Writer’s Edit) about options… Should I sign the contract? Should I wait it out for something better? Should I self-publish?
Amidst my frustration and impatience, she said something that was so on point, it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s up there with some of the best advice I’ve received: ‘You have to do what’s best for the book.’
It sounds simple, but I was so caught up in what publishing meant for my reputation, and how I was so sick and tired of pitching this book, that I lost sight of what was important – the book itself.
I realised that as wonderful as self-publishing is, my book wasn’t the kind that would lend itself well to this option. It needed a publisher to put it into the right readers’ hands, and that’s something I couldn’t do myself – not with this book, at least.
With my new book, however, it’s a completely different genre and target audience. This book is definitely something that could find an audience through the likes of Amazon and Twitter. Knowing this upfront means that I don’t face years of uncertainty after the book is complete.
If there’s one thing you take away from this section it should be: know what’s best for your book. The other factors like advances, royalties and reputation will fall away once you know the answer to that.
Being a Writer and an Editor
I’ve come to realise that less and less publishers are willing to spend their budget on structural editing, or heavy copy edits. As an author, that’s a pretty worrying thought.
As perfect as we try to make our work, the reality is that towards the end of writing a novel, we’re just too damn close to it to be able to pick out what’s not working. Which is why there are editors.
In the early stages of my undergraduate degree, when I was new to this industry, I was under the impression that the author polished their work as much as possible, and when a publisher wanted their book, they would sign a contract and work with an editor.
I don’t know whether it’s arts budget cuts, the changing nature of publishing itself or the fact that more and more people are buying cheap e-books, but in my experience, publishers are definitely spending less money on editing.
On a few occasions, I’ve been told to go out and hire an editor myself and then come back to the publisher. If we’re talking about a decent editor, the cost is around A$2,500… Which is a lot of money for an author. Especially one who hasn’t yet signed a contract and has no idea what kind of advance to expect, and that is if the publisher actually signs her book in the end. It’s an incredibly hard game to navigate.
Because of this, more and more authors are paying for editors before they submit to publishing houses.
So should you pay for an editor? If you’re self-publishing, yes, of course you need to pay for an editor. But if you’re looking to get a book deal with a traditional publisher, I personally think the answer here is: no.
A traditional publisher should be taking the risk, not the author. The author has already slaved away over a manuscript for months, or years, without seeing any money. They shouldn’t then have to outlay thousands of dollars before they even see a contract. Definitely something to be wary of.
Author Platforms and Social Media
I still see lots of authors questioning whether or not they should have an author platform (website) and social media profiles… Yes. Yes, you absolutely do need an author platform, and at least one active social media profile. This is the digital age, people!
Unless you’re just writing for fun, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t have an author platform and a Twitter or Facebook profile.
You should be working on these as you work on your novel, so when you finally do get that book deal, you have an existing base of warm leads to sell to. These people will have been with you from the beginning; they’ll be interested in your journey as a writer, and in how your book turns out.
While you probably didn’t sign up for creating a website and fiddling on Facebook, the reality is that these are just part of a writer’s job nowadays.
Advances, Royalties and Vanity Publishers
With the industry in a constant state of flux, it’s hard for us writers to know what the ‘norm’ is when it comes to advances and royalties.
Though it’s nearly impossible to predict an advance for a first-time author, here are the stats: the average advance received by poets is $100, compared with $5300 for genre fiction, $3900 for literary fiction and $3800 for children’s books (The Australian).
As for income in general, I think you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find a mid-list author making a living solely from their novel writing. Statistics say pretty much the same:
Considering only income earned as an author, the best remunerated field is education books ($16,300 a year), followed by genre fiction ($15,200), children’s books ($14,700) and literary fiction ($13,400). At the bottom of the scale is poetry at just $4000 a year.
I’m certainly not trying to dissuade anyone from trying to make a living from writing, but rather am trying to curb and manage initial author expectations.
Many of us writers find ourselves working as copywriters, freelance writers and editors alongside our creative work. A combination of these incomes can help us make ends meet.
Along with the immense opportunities the digital age offers us, come the risks. Thanks to technology, it’s easy enough for anyone to set up their own publishing house and take advantage of inexperienced writers.
Writers need to be careful of what are known as ‘vanity publishers’: publishers who charge the author fees to publish their work. It’s usually an upfront sum, and there’s no selection process beyond that. These businesses prey on the naivety and desperation of first-time authors, taking advantage of just how much they want to be published.
If you want find out more about vanity presses and how they’re run, this is a great article.
A Balancing Act
As you’ve probably gathered from the above, there’s a lot more to being a writer than actually writing. It’s one of the few occupations where work is a constant. One of my favourite sayings is that ‘there’s no vacation for a writer’. And there’s not. We’re constantly thinking of our characters and plot problems, or searching for new ideas. There’s no ‘off switch’ when you’re a writer.
Generally, we’re balancing multiple jobs, stressing about money and working well past usual business hours. We make big sacrifices regularly, be it a stable income or time with friends and family. It can be hard. Really hard.
But I suppose the overall message is this: if you can learn to navigate these challenges, life as a writer can be pretty wonderful. Perhaps it’s these challenges that make the journey and its outcomes all the more meaningful.
Despite the tribulations you face as a modern author, the important thing is to keep writing. Don’t get caught up in the negativity, the rejections and the speculation about the industry. If you want to be a writer, write.