This article covers the basics. Chances are you’ve heard and read a lot of it before and will consider most of it kid’s stuff, but bear with me because I’ve buried nuggets of gold in this children’s ball pit, and it’s always a good idea to review the basics from time to time. In this two part article I’ll discuss the twin arts of writing and publishing, I’ll introduce you to some hard truths, but I’ll also give you some reasons to hope. First, however, lets get the unpleasant part out of the way: lets talk publishing and being professional.
What is a professional writer?
Someone whose writing sells. Period. There is no better definition than this: not quality of prose, literary merit, calibre of vision, artistry or any other subjective analysis you can think of, because how do you measure all these things? You can’t measure them. They are all a matter of opinion. There are best sellers out there with plot holes you could fly a 747 through… but they sell. Some of them aren’t even that well written… but they sell. The only measure of success that matters is whether hard working people are willing to part with their hard-earned cash in order to purchase your words.
It’s a bonus if your words are also well written, but that’s Hard Truth Number 1: how well you write doesn’t matter. Shocked? You should be appalled. I am, and I’ll explain the basis of this truth in a moment.
Let’s start at the beginning:
There are two basic models of publishing in the world: self-publishing and traditional publishing through publishing houses. You may have heard of a third way, sometimes known as co-publishing, but as yet it is not widely practised and may turn out to be a fancy word for ‘self-published authors getting ripped off by cheapskate publishing houses’, so we’ll skip it for now.
What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
Pro: As a self-publisher you are guaranteed to get published. There are no agents or editors involved. There are no stringent submissions criteria that make you sweat harder than a college exam paper, and there is no waiting 6 months for a response, only to be told that you’re “Not right for our list”, whatever that means. All you have to do is click that ‘publish now’ button to send your work out into the world as an ebook, or lay down some cash for print-on-demand hard copies.
Con: Unless you’re rolling in cash and know some important people in the media, you will never be able to match the marketing power, or access the distribution channels available to, traditional publishing houses.
And another Con: A large segment of the reading public are prejudiced against any and all self-published books and with good reason, because a lot of self-published authors haven’t taken the time and effort to produce a good book. They’re like dog walkers who don’t pick it up: they ruin the reputation of dog walkers, everywhere.
What are the pros and cons of traditional publishing?
Pro: Say it with me, now: “Hallelujah, glory be to the Sales and Marketing Department! For within these hallowed halls of conference rooms and power point presentations global best selling multi-millionaire authors are made!”
And thus, we have the explanation for Hard Truth Number 1: so long as a publisher thinks they can sell your book it doesn’t matter how badly written it is. They have the raw power to ram it down the market’s throats, and 9 times out of 10 the market will swallow it. I know! It isn’t fair, and it distresses me no end to imagine the huge waste of talent that’s out there, going undiscovered all for the want of a little marketing money and a publisher’s imprint inside the front cover, but it’s a Darwin eat Darwin world, folks.
Witness the proliferation of Vampire Romance novels. They all sell, even the really bad ones, and the publishers all make a return on their investment because Vamp Roms are more popular than Durex. Couple that with a properly funded marketing campaign and you’ve got a winner, every time. That is, until the fashion changes to Cowboy Comedies…
Con: But there is badly written, and there is badly written, especially if your book is the very first Cow Com and not just another (reliably profitable) Vamp Rom. If a junior submissions editor glances at your cover letter and thinks it’s amateurish they probably won’t bother to read on, because it probably means the book isn’t well written. Or, worse, they do read on and spot three spelling mistakes and the wrong transitive verb in the first paragraph of chapter 1. Now you’re going in the recycle bin because, if you’re this badly written, you’d have to be the next Hunger Games to make you worth the time, money and effort to bring to the market!
And another Con: You can’t plan to become the next Hunger Games. These things do not happen by intent. Either that huge hand will descend from Heaven and, with its golden index finger, tap you upon the crown of your head or it won’t. You can’t lasso it, haul it down and headbutt it on its finger print! No, I’m afraid that if you want to get noticed, you’re going to have to do it the hard way by producing a good story that is well written and impresses the editors… mostly with how little work they will have to do if they accept your manuscript!
In the end, like your health, all you’ve got is your quality. Your quality is your first, best and probably your only real selling point. This applies just as much to self-publishing, if not more so, because self-published authors don’t have a Sales and Marketing Department.
Say hello to Hard Truth Number 2: it really does matter how well you write!
But forget the hard truths for a moment (and stop trying to figure out how both can be true at the same time: it’s something to do with quantum physics). The important thing to remember is this: how you sell your book to the public as a self-publisher, or how you sell your book to a publishing house as an aspiring author, are exactly the same. In both cases you prepare the same materials: you write a good book and a polished one page synopsis (no spelling mistakes or 747-sized plot holes, please), you compose a one line ‘elevator pitch’ and a single paragraph of back cover blurb (about 70 to 100 words), and you write a covering letter detailing the commercial merit of you and your book. And you set up a blog, several social media accounts and starting writing witty, informative and compelling blog posts when you should be writing, instead.
Wait, I’m submitting to a publishing house. Why do I need a blog?
Because your website subscribers, and the followers you accumulate through your social media presence, will form part of your pitch that proves to the publisher that you’re commercially viable. For example, you’ll mention on your cover letter how many newsletter subscribers, or twitter followers, you have. This roughly equates to a minimum number of book sales a publisher can expect to see in the first weeks or months of the books release, and goes a long way to improving your marketability as a brand.
Wait, I’m sticking with self-publishing. I know all about why I need a blog and social media. I don’t need to put together a proper submission like the publishing house guy.
Yes, you do, and here’s why it will help you: when you self-publish you must be your own marketing department and that means generating sales copy and a sales pitch. When your publishing house counterpart writes their cover letter, they’ll include the following information about their book:
1. What is it about? This is your elevator pitch.
2. What is the hook? This is your backcover blurb.
3. Why are you the best person to write this story?
And instantly that you’ve finished number 3 you also have the contents of the About page of your blog! (Self-publishers should save the polished synopsis for the Wikipedia article ten years from now, when you’ve sold three million books and become a cultural icon in your own right. Until then, it’s useful for checking for low-flying 747s.)
At the beginning of this article I said we were going to talk about publishing and being professional. Being professional isn’t really that complicated, it’s just hard. It’s hard to write sales copy and a synopsis when you’d rather be composing glittering dialogue, or poetic prose. It’s hard to write cover letters and wait for 6 months, only to get a one line rejection, or bang away at the blog all day and get no retweets or Facebook likes. Being professional is mostly about attitude.
And here, at the end, we have Hard Truth Number 3: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
Stay tuned for the Art of Writing and Reasons to be Hopeful coming in part 2.
About Michael Ranson
Michael Ranson has been described as everything from urban to snooty. When asked to describe himself he usually prefers to tell a story. He is, after all, a fiction writer and it can be a hard habit to break!
What is true is that he wields the red pens and brews the strong tea that fuels his new website, Ranson writes, where he indulges in his life-long love of word craft. He has a lot to say about how to get published and plans to follow his own advice later this year with the release of his first fantasy novel.