Ask Correia 10: How do you get published?

I saw this question over on WTA, and I started to reply with a quick answer. In usual Correia fashion that turned into a 2,000 word blog post.

If you have a book in your head, and wanted to get it published – what do you do first?

What are the usual type of financial arrangements for the sale of a book? Is it a flat fee or a percentage or both?

 

Okay, here is the simple version.

  1. Write book.
  2. Rewrite book to make it better.
  3. Go pick up a copy of The Writer’s Guide from your local bookstore. TWG is a phonebook-sized compendium of all the literary agents and publishers, as well as a list of what they are looking for/representing.
  4. Pick the publishers/agents that will be interested in your work, and carefully following their submission guidelines, start submitting.

A note on agents. Many publishing houses will not take un-agented submissions. Before signing an agent do your homework. There are many shysters out there that will screw you. NEVER pay an agent. Agents work strictly on commission. i.e., they don’t get jack until you make a sale. Normal industry standard for an agent is 15%.  If they want money up front, run.

I am unagented. There are pros and cons to doing this. Pro: I keep more money, and I’ve already got a relationship with my publisher and don’t foresee wanting to go anywhere else. (plus I’ve got a publisher with a reputation for honesty with their writers).  A bad agent is worse than no agent, because a crappy one will not push your work, and will cost you lots of valuable time. If you get an agent, but you don’t feel like they are working for you, fire them. Fire them HARD.

Con: the agent’s job is to represent you. They will often get you a better deal than you can get yourself, plus they can get you better contracts or deals that you wouldn’t be able to get on your own. (like foreign language sales, that kind of thing). Many of my friends have agents. We’ve had this discussion amongst ourselves a few times. They also help you with the business end of writing. (but me being an accountant, wasn’t too worried about that… more about paying your taxes later)

Agents are difficult to get. You will be rejected by the vast majority of them. They serve as the first layer of defense against bad writing, and are the reason that many publishers don’t read unagented submissions.

5. Submit some more. You will be rejected. A lot.

There is something like a 99.9% failure rate in this business. However, just keep in mind that a big chunk of those rejections are because the manuscripts flat out suck. If you don’t suck, or care enough to practice until you don’t suck, then the main key to success is perseverance.

I was rejected by everyone and their dog. Some of them were rather nice about it. Some were jerks. Most were form letters. That’s life. Don’t let it get you down.

6. While being rejected, go write another book. You will get better with each try.

I’ve got a bunch of books coming out. People have asked me how I write so fast. It isn’t that I’m fast, it is more like I kept working on other projects the entire time I was trying to get published. So I had some backlog that all I needed to do was clean up after I started having success.

7. Oh my gosh, a publisher is interested! Now what?

There are many different publishers with many different deals. Personally, I’m not a fan of many of the tiny publishers because I’ve got quite a few friends who’ve been screwed. Then again, you might do okay. 

Your contract will specify how much you get. Normally it is a percentage of cover price. (6-10%). Hard covers are usually much higher. (15%-25%) Writers aren’t going to tell you what they make because that is secret, and we’re a jealous, petty bunch. So if your contract says (for an easy example) that you get 10% of cover price, and the book is $10, then you would get $1 per book sold royalty.   

Industry standard is that you get an advance against royalties. This can range anywhere from $1,000-$10,000, to one guy I know who got $280,000 for his first 3 books, to a friend of mine that got 2.5 million for a 4 book deal. There is a big variance. The bigger the publishing house, the bigger the advance usually. The advance is yours to keep. Period. You must earn the value of the advance before you begin actually getting royalties.  i.e. If they give you $10,000, and you are getting $1 per book royalty, you have to sell 10,000 copies before you would see any money above and beyond your advance.

The big advance is awesome, but if you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, I wouldn’t worry too much about the size of your advance. If you get an epic advance, but then your sales choke, that publisher may have lost money on you, and then they might not buy any more books. I’d be more worried about the quality of my publishing house and how hard they’re going to work to push my book than how big my first advance was. The plus of the super huge advance is that the publisher is now heavily invested in you, and that means they are probably going to push/market you that much harder.

Publishers don’t pay like a regular paycheck. You usually get paid every 6 months, though I’ve heard of some that pay quarterly and some that pay annually.  You will be a 1099. Which means DON’T FORGET TO PAY YOUR TAXES! Seriously, don’t. You’ve got to do your own personal withholdings. Many authors have never worked for themselves before they get their big break, and then a few years after their hit novel came out they are working for the IRS and living in their car. The IRS loves to audit 1099s.

Now, getting back to business. Do not expect to be able to quit your day job based upon selling one novel. Unless that book is a super big hit, you’re not going to make buckets of money. The average mid-list novel in the US sells something like only 15,000 copies in its life. If you’re making like 8% on a $7 paperback, that’s not a whole lot of cash. Normally authors will have several books out first and a new one coming every year, before they quit their day jobs.

My first two books have done really well and I’ve got 8 more under contract. I probably could quit my day job and be fine, but A. I’ve got a super awesome day job that pays good and loves me, and B. I’m an accountant and I’m too darn cheap to quit yet. (plus, if Mrs. Correia is reading this C. I can’t quit until I pay the new house off!)

Small presses are nice, but if that company has bad distribution, it sucks. I’ve got a few friends who have been absolutely shafted by their publishers, because stores can’t get their books or the chains won’t stock them. Big houses are good for distribution, but they can suck too and I’ve seen a few of my friends get mistreated by big houses. Keep in mind that this is a business like any other, and your publisher is your business associate. Personally, I think I really lucked out.

8. Nobody wants to buy my book. I’ve been rejected by everyone. I suck and am lame.

Yes. So buck up. You’ve got two possibilities. The book is not that good. Michael Jordan didn’t dunk from half court the first time he played basketball either. Learn from your mistakes, write a better book, and try again… OR let’s say that you’re super confident that the book is AWESOME and that customers will buy and love the heck out of it, and the publishing industry is just a bunch of poopy heads for not understanding your brilliance. You can always self-publish, which is how I got started…

BUT I don’t recommend it. If you are going to self publish you’ve got to be a self-promoting son of a gun. You’ve got to figure out who your market it, exactly how you are going to reach them, and then you’re going to have to work your butt off. Most self published books are badly written. Most readers know that. So you’ve got a huge handicap starting out that you’ve got to overcome. In their minds, self published = crap.

For example, I was reading some reviews of MHV over on a forum. I had just made the NYT bestseller list and a bunch of forumites were talking about how great this book was. Somebody who hadn’t heard of me went over to Wikipedia and read the entry about me there. He came back and posted “I don’t know… The Wiki says he was self-published. That’s never a good sign…” Yes. Even after selling a ton of books, getting tons of good reviews, and making the friggin’ NYT (which is like the writer’s equivalent to getting nominated for an Oscar to an actor’s career), this guy wasn’t interested because that’s how negative an impression self published works have had on him. That is what you are up against if you self publish.

9. Yay. I got a publishing contract! Puppy dogs and rainbows forever!

Nope. Once you get a publishing contract, you now need to promote the heck out of your book as much as possible. You can sit on your butt and hope that it becomes the Oprah book of the month and that your publisher will do all that hard marketing stuff, but that might/probably won’t happen.

You need to market yourself. You need to get fans. Be cool to them. If they really like you, they’ll tell their friends. There are many writers with far more literary skill than me, that sell a lot less books. (on the other hand there are some really terrible writers that sleep on giant piles of money, so go figure) For networking, I love the internet. It lets me interact with people all over. I love blogging, but then again I’ve got a gregarious personality. I love you guys.

On the other hand, if you hate people and have a lot of dreams involving clock towers and high powered rifles, then you probably don’t want that public interaction because then the word of mouth about you will be about what a jerk-psycho you are. And yes, I know a few authors like that too.

10. Write more books.

You don’t want to be that guy who wrote one or two absolutely brilliant books and then faded into obscurity. Writing is work. It is a job. You have to keep at it. Even once you’ve had some success, you’ve still got to keep it up.

25 Responses

  1. Thanks for putting this together, Larry. You’re right on the money.

    Self-publishing is an exercise in self-abuse, but there are some positive paybacks even if you only sell a few books. I’ve just about broken even on my first book and about halfway to the initial investment on the second, plus I’ll always have the pride of the personal accomplishment even if I never make it big.

    Trying to make it as an author is the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced, no joke there, and I brought it on myself. I intend to keep hammering away until I come up with that magic literary bullet.

    I had a literary agent, once. I got the impression that he wasn’t really trying to sell my manuscript, even though he was working on commission. That’s why I decided to try self-publishing. I would be more than happy to take some suggestions for good agents to whom I can submit some samples.

  2. Good advice, Larry. I’ve been trying to educated new authors about things like this for months and yet… well, you have the readership I don’t. But thanks for enlightening people.

    Maybe now those “So why are you looking for a real job?” questions can stop…

  3. “Nope. Once you get a publishing contract, you now need to promote the heck out of your book as much as possible.”

    Wait, you wrote a book? I hadn’t heard. ;)

  4. A big advance does matter. The more the publisher has invested, the more they must promote to get their money back. Minimal advance plus minimal work on their end = minimal income for doing nothing. That also means minimal income for you.

    Your or your agent’s opening bid on advance should be, “Take off your trousers.” You can negotiate from there.

    This doesn’t apply to fixed rate articles and short fiction, or if you’re working for Baen. If your stuff leans toward the liberal end of SF, DAW might treat you as well. Tor I can’t speak for. Any other publisher, you want testicles in hand and the chainsaw running before you hand them a needle to sign the contract with, and check the DNA on the blood.

  5. Thanks Larry, good stuff as always.

    I’m still stuck on number 2.

  6. Self publishing can be hard work – but occasionally the rewards seem to pay off. Matthew Reilly is an Australian author – http://www.matthewreilly.com – he’s now published in various languages, and has several series of books. Most of them end up being best sellers – and are an excellent read.
    Keep up the good work mate.

  7. At least you’re at 2, moose1942. I imagine that most of the people reading this article are hanging out about 20 pages into #1.

  8. Hi Larry,

    Just a quick question: what is WTA? Is that a website for writers. I’m not a writer, but Im starting to do some work in that area…

    best

    terence

  9. You should give the “Ask Correia” stuff it’s own tab on top for easy reference.. Oh and a “Best of” tab for new readers… :D

  10. on the other hand there are some really terrible writers that sleep on giant piles of money, so go figure

    You just gotta tap into either the “childlike screaming enthusiasm” market or the “hormonally driven screaming enthusiasm” market. Or if you’re really lucky, both. Like Mizzes Rowling and Meyer.

  11. Great post. The latest form rejection letter knocked the wind out of my sails and this was just what I needed to dust myself off and get back to work.

  12. You can get signed by the biggest publishing house going and then write the greatest book in the universe that sells more copies than the Bible, and some jackass will say “I dunno, his first book was self-published…”
    Truthfully some of the best stuff (and some of the most gawdawful worst) is what I’ve read on the internets.
    I can’t write fershit but I sure do like reading. Keep up the good work! (and Moose, I’m really liking the Magic Ink.)

  13. Good blog Larry. I’m aiming to be a writer but I’ll probably end up a manwhore selling my body to rich older women who beat me with whips and laugh at my tears.

    Still can’t be any worse than being an amateur writer right!

    Now then is it a good idea for a wannabe writer to try and network in person at things like conventions and walking into publishing companies with a copy of their work in hand?

  14. DO NOT walk into a publishing company with a manuscript in hand.

    DO NOT slide it under the stall door to an editor in the bathroom.

    These have happened and are remembered forever, and not favorably.

    If you go to conventions, participate in panels, get introduced, you may eventually be able to ask an editor if they have time to look at something of yours. Think of it as a first date with a former nun. Don’t ask for a pogo monkey. Settle for a kiss on the cheek.

    • I usually settle for the lady not being a man on my dates, so a kiss on the cheek is a step up!

      On a serious note though it sounds like actually trying to sell a manuscript face to face is probably a bit of a faux pa. Since I’m a liberal commie I’ve been toying with the idea of posting my work online and letting people read it and enjoy it, aka ‘The Larry Correia Way’, with perhaps an option to donate money towards buying me a yacht. A huge yacht with military hardware and an all female bisexual model crew trained in naval combat with which I shall sail the Seven Seas fighting pirates and righting wrongs. I’m pretty sure I just described John Ringo’s next novel.

      God I love that man!

  15. Larry – have you ever read the Client K blog? http://clientk.com/ She’s a writer, accountant, marketer, and I don’t know what else, and she writes on all those subjects. Many of her posts are on the particular difficulties of being a writer, and recently, wrote a number of posts on writing agents.

    Like many, I once dreamed of becoming a writer, but quickly realized I not only suck at dialog, but can’t come up with a plot worth caring about, either.

  16. Grin and some people have a publisher call them up and ask if they have any books ready….

    It is a grind, just keep writing, get the pipeline full and turn in quality work. Sweating out the submission process is best done by writing …. another book.

    Kevin

  17. Larry,

    You hit the ball right out of the park when you mention the part about self-published books.

    I saw a review of MHI on Lawdog’s blog and my first thought was of the indescribably BAD book that I’d bought a few years back – bought it from a good friend (his brother had written it). It was AWFUL. I can count on my hands the number of books I’ve never finished, and this turkey was one of them. Picture a wannabe Horseclans novel written by a 12 year old with a self-inflated notion of how much he knows about tactics, weapons and sex and you’ve about got it. Best use for this turkey would have been using it as a step (it was about 3″ thick) or kindling.

    Anyway, THAT is what was going through my mind as I was reading LD’s review of MHI. Fortunately, he included a hotlink to your site. So I went and read the first chapter online… and immediately fired off a check for the book and a patch. That first chapter is what sold me on your book. And now I’m eagerly awaiting MHA.

  18. Since this was an answer to the question I posted on WTA, I have to say thank you to Larry and Michael.

    The fact that one of my favorite authors – in fact two of them – would answer my questions is really a positive experience for me.

    You guys rock!

  19. WELL…. This post was a bummer. I usually don’t read your blog but now and then (no offense. I’m just a busy mom and don’t have much free time).

    Anyway, I’m in the process of querying agents and a lot of them any the crap out of me. All they do is spew super liberal stuff and I’m having a hard time swallowing that I’ll have to work closely with someone that pretentious and full of themselves for years to come.

    Anyway, I thought ‘Larry Correia is conservative! I should find out who his agent is!’

    And now my hopes are crushed. I’d be interested to read your thoughts on the increasingly liberal agent community, though. Have you written on this?

    • I believe the agent model is going away. There are long and complicated reasons for this, but publishing is changing and most of them won’t have a place. Except for celebs or huge bestsellers, most writers won’t bother/won’t want to (as you noted), and they’ll disappear from attrition.

      • Gosh, I kind of hope so. I think I am the type of person who’d benefit from someone fighting for me in a negotiation. I have no backbone. That being said, It seems like every literary is twenty, female, athiest, a staunch feminist, and only interested in the types of books that don’t appeal to me.

        (I have nothing against feminists.I’m a female. Females are great. I just get sick of the hatred towards men.)

        Honestly, It feels like NEW conservative authors don’t have a shot at getting an agent because of their open hostility towards conservatives. Maybe that isn’t at all the case, As I’ve just started querying and have gotten positive responses. (My book isn’t political or religious) I can’t help but feel as if they had any idea I am a conservative Christian, my chances would be shot, though.

        Perhaps I should just how an editor and consider the self publishing route. I’m just wary that maybe my books suck and I would be wasting my money.

      • Be cautious hiring an editor. You don’t want them to change your voice or dilute the work, and it’s money you probably don’t need to spend.

        Write a good story, first. Polish it. Study how you did it. Then worry about a publisher.

  20. Ha! Nevermind. I searched the blog and found stuff. I have to read this thing more often. Interesting.

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