Say "Hi!" to John! I first read this article on the business of books at John's blog: http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/ and thought it was a fantastic insight from an author who has walked further down the road that I have just put my feet to. He is the author of Smoke and Mirrors, and The Last Day (see the pretty book cover? Ooooo, aaahhhh), among other books. Check out his website for all the details about his "killer" books! http://www.johnramseymiller.com/default.asp
After a career in advertisement and photography, John set his mind to writing. And he is generous enough to share insights into his journey thus far with us!
Are you ready for some hard cold facts about the business of writing? (What? It's a BUSINESS? Yeah, it is....and while great writing is your stock and trade, it sure helps to have an understanding of what matters most in the industry of books). Read on!
Welcome to Bean-Counter Land
I still hear tales of authors in the old days whose work never sold impressively, but were published religiously because their words were deemed by the houses to be important to future readers and gave an author’s work deserved time and effort on their part to eventually build an audience. I don’t have to tell you that those days are long gone and any author’s importance to a publisher is measured strictly in units sold. Like movie studios, publishers seem only interested in books they believe will be blockbusters that will rapidly swell their quarterly numbers for stockholders. We can decry it as a shame, but we all need to understand that the world we write in is about numbers. The good old days, if they ever truly ever existed, are gone, baby gone.
By the way, it isn’t just numbers sold, but also the numbers of returned units that publishers tend to go by. For example: if you sell 50,000 copies of a book, but the publisher figured (let’s say they based that on the strength of advance orders) it would be a major big seller so they printed 250,000 units because that was what "they" decided to print, you have failed them the worst way imaginable. And chances are that they will make you feel like a child who has disappointed his father––picture a New England Episcopal minister’s son who marries a snake-handling, poison-sipping toothless Holy roller from the mountains of West Tennessee.
Unless you are somehow able to sell a substantial number of books somehow on your own, or if a book builds from word of mouth, the publishers won’t advertise, and if they do, they will most likely plant one ad in one spot and wonder why the advertising failed to work its magic. I was in advertising for many years and I can tell you that any ad has to be seen nine times to make an impression on an individual––and that’s one who’s open to the product. Print ads are a prohibitively expensive way to sell books, and unless you are a major best-selling author you will be lucky to get even one ad anywhere. The truth is that best-selling authors need ads only to hold their market share, and alert their readers that a book is on shelves, so you can’t blame the publishers for putting their money where they are most likely to see results on their bottom lines. You can’t blame a business for wishing to make money because that is how everything is measured. It’s disheartening for an author to put a year of their life into a book, labor to make sure it’s as good as they can make it and then watch the publisher ship it out and wait to see what happens to it. Even if a book wins a major prize, and gets great reviews, unless it hits their expectations, they watch it disappear after a few weeks and that’s it. It isn’t that they don’t care or believe in the book, it’s just a fact of business. And, although your editor will be excited for you, I get the impression that publishers aren’t all that impressed by awards, as they do not seem to sell books.
Some of us are luckier than others, and our books are put out in big numbers, and we gather readership, and our publishers keep on putting out product. I’ve been lucky that way because I have a great editor and publisher and I know they care about me personally and want to see my career take off for all concerned. Okay, it’s enlightened self-interest, but such makes the world go around. I don’t mind. I am loyal to them, and they have been most loyal to me. Each time I write a book I know they are watching and praying it will break out and I’ll sell enough books to make their sales team smile. I know when I fall below expectations, and I have, they are as disappointed as I am, but perhaps for a shorter time than I spend frustrated about it.
This business is hard, but I doubt any harder than most others. I see us authors as cottage industry manufacturers working alone who make a product for a company that will refine and distribute it the best they know how. Some of us see the publishing company we’ve been with as our extended family, but unfortunately it’s not unconditional love, or life-long commitment. No matter how big your numbers are today, you are only as valuable to a publishing company as your sales sheets say you are. When you are selling big and making the lists, they dote on and pamper you, but when those sales slip, they will wave good-by and go to the next thing. This is true in most businesses. It’s as disheartening as discovering that the person you loved and thought you’d stay with forever has a change of heart, and falls for another, but it’s the reality.
The life of an author is dificult. We work alone, are paid by the job, don’t receive insurance benefits from the company, work long hours, have no job security whatsoever, probably have little or no 401 Ks building up, and, if we are lucky manage to make a boom-to-bust living at it. But we do it for our own personal reasons, and if we complain, we know we’re wasting time we could be using to write, and that nobody outside our family really cares.
Recently a student asked me what advice I’d give an aspiring author. I said what I always say, "This life has its rewards for sure. Making a living doing what you love is perfection. Despite highs and lows, creating stories from thin air and living with a book as you create and improve it is almost orgasmic. Seeing your books on bookstore shelves is a rush for sure, and hearing from truly appreciative readers is truly a great feeling. But… don’t become a writer if you think you will get rich from doing so. Don’t do this for a living if you have a thin skin or can’t take rejection. Don’t become a writer of commercial fiction if you can’t take direction from editors and hack at your wonderful novel with a meat cleaver when it is necessary. And, if you are lucky enough to sell a book to a publisher, treat the first and each subsequent advance as though it is the last money you’ll ever see from your publisher …because it just might be."
Okay, GROUP HUG! There, there. It's tough news, but facing reality never hurt anyone. And for those of you who are "writers to the core" you aren't the least bit deterred by any of this. If you are, that's okay. Keep writing, keep learning the craft, and keep growing.
I bid you good writing.