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So You Want To Make A Living Writing? 13 Great Truths

IMG_1494This is the flip side of my 13 Harsh Truths post of 29 April.

It’s a great life. I’m my own boss. I wear shorts and t-shirts to work, which is in my house. I sit at my desk with a great view of the TN River with a blank stare, drool running down the side of my mouth, and I’m working. Well, not really. Because no one’s paying me for my great thoughts. They’re paying for my writing.

I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century and here are some Great Truths I’ve learned about making a living as a writer.

  1. You can. You constantly hear “No one makes a living writing novels.” I’ve heard it for decades. In 2012 I was at a conference where I gave a keynote, then was listening to another keynote speaker saying “Don’t quit your day job”. And it started to worry me, until I realized my day job was writing. So I didn’t quit.
  2. It’s the best time ever to be a writer. I’ve been doing it for over 25 years and have heard all sorts of gloom and doom, but I can honestly say, I don’t think there’s ever been a better time. That’s not to say it isn’t an extremely confusing time, but that’s why I’ve done other blog posts on that, including one about 99% of advice coming from 1% of authors.
  3. There is more information than ever before out there. Which could be bad too, but seriously, you can garner a wealth of information about the craft and business of writing without leaving home.
  4. Leave home. One of the greatest mistakes I made in my early writing career was not networking. Even in self/indie publishing, it’s key to network with people. I know you’re an introvert, but get out there and talk to people. It’s a people business. And network with a couple of other serious writers on your craft. I’m not a fan of large writers groups getting together and doing line by lines, but 2 or 3 serious writers working on story, like we do in Write on the River, is invaluable. Find better writers than you to work with.
  5. Publishing is full of great people. Yes, both in the trad and indie world. Everyone I’ve met is there because they love books and stories. You hear terrible stories about publishers, editors, agents, Amazon etc. but pretty much everyone I’ve met has been really nice. In fact, I’ve been very impressed with how nice the people at Apple, Amazon, Pubit, Kobo etc are, especially to authors.
  6. Writers support writers. Mostly. I always advise writers to join their local RWA chapter. It’s the most professional writing organization around and your local chapter has tons of expertise and friendly people and monthly workshops.
  7. It’s about story not the book. Change your frame of reference. I sell stories. In various modes: digital, audio and print. Wrap your brain around that concept. It’s about the content not the format! I market using . . .
  8. Slideshare, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc. all from home. I used to not be a fan of book trailers, and while I don’t think they do much direct selling, they increase your digital footprint. And they’re cool.
  9. The framework of the story is evolving in the digital age. Since you can self-publish just about anything, you aren’t constrained creatively. I think self-pubbing is doing what the cable networks did to TV. HBO broke ground on new formats for series and characters. Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood. Other networks have picked it up. Have you seen Orange Is The New Black? And its precursor Weeds, which my wife and I are binging currently? Jenji Kohan does things with story that are crazy. And seriously, Weeds was Breaking Bad before there was a Breaking Bad. Definitely a different format there. I love studying story and then playing with it.
  10. You can stuWeedsdy story in books, but also on Netflix and On-Demand. Watch everything twice. The first for enjoyment of the story and characters and to learn what happens. The second time is the key as a professional writer. Because you know what’s going to happen you can see how the writers crafted the story and characters now. The second time is eye-opening. If Marie hadn’t stolen that damn state spoon in Breaking Bad, Hank would still be alive and the story would have gone in a completely different direction. Get it? You didn’t the first time you saw it and probably forgot that little event. The second time, it looms large.
  11. Focus on craft; not marketing and promotion. You can’t promote crap. The best marketing is a good story; better marketing is more good stories.
  12. The gatekeepers are readers. While traditional publishing is still a viable path, they no longer control distribution. This is such a fundamental change in the business paradigm, I truly believe very few people grasp the implications. New York is hanging on to its antiquated business model instead of embracing change. As part of the transition in the Army from a focus on conventional forces to Special Operations, I saw how hard change is in a large organization. But evolve or . . .
  13. Bottom line: The only person who can stop your success is you.

 

The Everything Store; Amazon-Hachette; Yada Yada

EverythingAmazon is both “missionary and mercenary” and is a line from Brad Stone, the author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. That to me sums this book up and sums up Amazon.

Given recent events, aka Hachette-Amazon, it’s required reading for anyone involved in the publishing industry. I think it’s actually required reading for anyone who just buys from Amazon. It lays out how a company that was just a thought in 1994 became what it is today.

After reading the book, then I suggest reading the reviews written by some of the people mentioned in the book, including Mr. Bezos wife. I’m a bit surprised at the negative reaction from some of these people because I didn’t think the book is a smear job on either Bezos or the company he started and still runs. It lays out a business template of someone driven to success.

My take on Bezos from this book (which might totally be wrong, I’m sure his wife knows him better): he wants to win. It’s not all about making money (although I’m sure he doesn’t complain) but about winning.

I’m business partner of Amazon (and other platforms) simply because eBooks resurrected my writing career after traditional publishing said it was over. I tell writers it’s the best time ever to be an author. I’ve been able to re-publish my extensive backlist and get it to writers and Amazon facilitates that. I was recently able to publish a free Sneak Peak containing excerpts and author notes from 42 of my books and make it live on Amazon (and other platforms). What bookstore or publisher would do that? I get paid every month, while traditional publishing still issues royalties as if computers and the internet had never been invented.

Also, every interaction I’ve had with Amazon employees (including a day long visit in January) has been positive. They view authors as customers too, which is key although there are rumblings that might change.

That said, after reading this book, I also cast a leery eye at the future and make plans in case winning comes at the cost to me and my career.

As far as Amazon-Hachette, I think the real point is the future of print. Put simply, the current business model is antiquated and extremely inefficient with bookstores being consignment stores and books being shipped back if they don’t sell. Print on Demand is the inevitable future as the machine gets smaller and the price point gets lower. The part of the negotiations that really caught my eye was the mention that Amazon wants to include a clause where they can print up books and sell them if they are out of publisher stock. This means a POD machine at every Amazon fulfillment center and one doesn’t have to stretch the imagination to envision chronic shortages of supplies of print books from publishers. It would be dramatically more efficient, but would give Amazon much more control over publishing.

I also envision Amazon kiosks in airport, at colleges, in malls, etc. with POD machines. Inventory is stored in the computer. The book is printed when the customer wants it. Of course, the problem is: how does the customer know the book exists if they can’t see it? Which is a problem for digital: discoverability.

I was in Costco yesterday (yes, with great emotional suffering) and noticed how much the book table has shrunk in the past year. Same with going into a Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago: a lot less books getting racked. But, also, at airport bookstores, at Costco, the only books being racked at from a handful of mega-bestselling authors. Not much democracy there. For well over a decade publishers have gone more and more to the blockbuster and relegated the midlist and new authors to the slums. Understandable business-wise but apparently something some of those mega-bestselling authors who yell loudly about Amazon care nothing about.

IMG_1494At Cool Gus we take emotion out of the business process and look realistically to the future. I see many crowing that “digital has flattened” and “ebook sales have slowed”. Yes, as one getting above 50% and heads toward 100% things will slow down. It’s math. For those who worry about Amazon taking over the world, we also noticed at BEA a much more aggressive approach from #iBooks, Google and PubIt (although what the split means, we won’t get into).

As I noted in a previous blog: anyone who thinks the status quo is going to be maintained needs to be looking for a new job soon.

That said: It is still the best time ever to be an author. And, I believe, to be a reader. I’ve got a print book on my desk that would have been “out of print” but for POD technology, which I’m using for research. And I’ve got books on my iPhone, always ready to be read, like when I’m sitting in the doctor’s waiting room later this morning.

Nothing but interesting times ahead!

99% of what Writers are hearing in terms of advice comes from 1% of Authors.

So how much actually applies and is useful?

I recently taught at a conference that forced me to get back to basics. Both in terms of the craft of writing and the business. Like many agents and editors, successful authors, after years in the trenches, become a bit jaded, and we also tend to forget what it was like to be on the outside looking in.

Looking at many conferences and conventions we see the same names presenting, again and again. Normally, they are very successful authors, whether indie or trad, who indeed have a lot of great information to impart. Still, the same person saying the same thing at a lot of conferences the same year might be overkill. The same is true of popular blogs where the same party line is touted, without considering the nuanced sides to every issue. After all, I’ve never seen a business event in publishing to be all good or all bad. Every thing has shades to it that every writer has to factor into their own personal situation.

IMG_1247But, after all, we want to hear from success stories, not failures. Still, if it were easy to replicate those successes, then everyone would be doing it. Plus, many success stories feel their path is the path, and don’t take into account not only other paths, but the changes in the business and even in story telling since they started.

For decades the spiel was pretty much the same: write a great novel following a traditional form of narrative structure (I still teach the five part structure) and then query an agent, hope the agent takes you on, then the agent pitches an editor, etc. etc. etc.

That’s somewhat true now, but there are so many more options, if I were new to publishing I’d be completely confused, as many writers I’ve met at conferences are.

First—does what the 1% say regarding their career path even apply any more? Things are different now than they were just six months ago. For trad authors issues like rights granted, reversion clauses, and non-compete clauses are growing more and more important. For indie authors, the market is saturated, so how do you get a toehold in it and leverage your way up, especially if you don’t have backlist, which is the conundrum for the new author?

When I was listening to an agent present I felt like I was in a time warp going back five years or more. Much of what she said was applicable but some of it had cobwebs hanging all over it. In fact, the success story she touted was a couple of years out of date and no longer applicable. But in a similar manner, I’ve heard some on the indie side speak and while what they say is often cutting edge, the cut is often very much slanted toward indie, while disparaging to trad publishing. I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve.  I think it all co-exists, much like Cool Gus & Sassy Becca above.

Second—does narrative structure even hold true in a different story-telling market? I turn to TV for this as my wife and I spend an inordinate amount of time watching it (she always controls the remote and she’s always right about what to watch). Shows like Orange Is The New Black do things to story (time hops, protagonist really not being part of climactic scene, etc) that are non-traditional but fascinating.

While I teach the basic narrative structure, I do so as part of craft, always reminding writers that to be true artists they have to learn the rules, then break them.

The same is true of the business. We hear “This is the way to do it!” shouted, but is it for you? Actually, the true entrepreneur blazes a new path. One reason I’ve stayed alive in publishing for a quarter century is I never thought I had it made. Every author I know who thought they had it made, ended their career the second they thought that. I’ve constantly reinvented myself and still am. I’m doing things differently now, both creatively and business-wise, than I was six months ago.

I want to hear from you—the writers getting all this great advice from so many sources. What have you heard that you liked, didn’t like and what do you want to hear that hasn’t been spoken yet?

So You Want To Make A Living Writing? 13 Harsh Truths.

It’s a great life. I’m my own boss. I wear shorts and t-shirts to work, which is in my house. I sit at my desk with a great view of the TN River with a blank stare, drool running down the side of my mouth, and I’m working. Well, not really. Because no one’s paying me for my great thoughts. They’re paying for my writing.

I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century and here are some harsh truths I’ve learned about making a living as a writer.

1. No one owes you a reading. You have to earn it.

2.  The minute you think you have it made, your career is over.

3.  You have to be ahead of innovation, not following it. I get rather bored lately reading blog posts and tweets and comments from BEA, LBF, PubSmart, Digital Bookworld, etc. regarding all the gurus making predictions, comments, yada, yada, because I’ve had the bisque. That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to learn. Now I focus more on the subtext. Jon Fine of Amazon using the term “tsunami of content” caught my attention because it came a few weeks after I blogged about the content bubble, which might better be called the content blob. But other than that, a lot of it is the same old, same old. But I also have to accept for many writers, it’s new. Still, I also remember what some of these same ‘gurus’ were saying 3 or 4 years ago. Uh-huh.

4. Listen to those who have skin in the game. I make my living selling stories to readers. If you want to make a living selling stories to readers focus on listening to those people. Those who make their money in ancillary ways off of the book business? Listen to them but also understand their motives are different than yours. Many of them want to make their money off you. Caveat emptor.

5. Trust no one. Okay, that’s extreme but essentially, no writer should count on anyone else professionally. Your agent, your editor, your publisher: they are not your friends. They are not your business manager. They are people who you work with as a self-employed part of the publishing machine. They might love you, but when the numbers don’t add up—later, gator.

6. Publicity doesn’t equal sales. You can be on the front page of the NY Times and unless the story is specifically about your book, it doesn’t lead to sales. I always like watching Harlan Ellison talk about ‘pay the writer’ because we really don’t value ourselves enough.

7.  You can be as ‘right’ as you want to be but still fail. I only have to be right for my business. Not anyone else’s. What works for me will not work for anyone else. Stop trying to prove you’re right to others. They don’t care.

8. People lie. Writers are professional liars. I’ve listened to keynotes from writers and known they weren’t telling the truth. I’ve seen ‘deals’ posted in Publishers Marketplace and known the agent was grossly exaggerating the sale. No one blogs about “my career has gone down the crapper”. Nope. People talk about good things. So don’t let it discourage you when everyone seems to be doing better than you. Often they’re hanging on by their fingernails.

9.  No matter how good your writing is, someone will not like it. In fact, the better it is, the bigger the pushback. The more successful you become, the more people will try to take you down. Don’t let them.

10.  Math wins. Always. The Content Blob is going to eat up a lot of midlist self-pubbers. Remember the movie The Blob? 1958? Steve McQueen? Every book that is digitized is on the shelf forever. No one is walking the aisles with computer printouts removing those that are beginning to ooze. And every day more and more titles are added.

11.  Nobody knows everything. When we go to industry events, I constantly remind my business partner that no one there knows everything. In fact, most know only a niche. People pretend to know a lot, but that’s because they’re . . .

12.  Afraid. Fear rules many things in life. Fear is insidious. Repeat the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s brilliant Dune:

“I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing….only I will remain”

13.  It always comes back to content. Bundles, Bookbub, sacrificing goats; they all have their place. But it always comes back to content. Write good stories. Then more good stories. And you will succeed.

 

 

SAMPLERFREE sampler of 42 of my books.

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