A Well Traveled Road
So I was planning on doing a piece on the careful construction of a novel. Then I decided I’d change subjects from writing for a few minutes and discuss the logistics of handling business.
Oh, I know it’s been done before, and right here on Storytellers Unplugged, too. But as the header suggests, it’s a well-traveled road and one that should be examined regularly. The fact that a lot of authors have been down this particular stretch of pavement doesn’t mean it’s been well mapped out, or that there aren’t a few areas where things can go wrong.
I figured we should look at a few of the aspects of the business side of writing. Not nearly all of them, not by any stretch of the imagination. Just a few of them. Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
Be professional: This one is self-explanatory, or at least it should be. The editor didn’t like your story? TOUGH! Send it to another one. Send a thank you note if you’re so inclined, or just wait a few weeks and send another submission. If you piss off that editor, you will be remembered, but not as someone said editor wants to deal with in the future. Be professional means, in this case, put your fractured ego aside and get on with the business you want to be a part of. Don’t start throwing slanderous accusations and don’t tell ten friends what a rectal orifice that editor is. Failure to follow this rule enough times will make it very, very difficult to get a writing gig.
Getting paid: There are, of course, numerous methods of payment in this business. There is the satisfaction of having your name in print. There’s the beauty of free books with your name in them. There’s the ever-popular free ad in an issue of a magazine you’ve sold a story to. There’s the legendary “exposure,” and then there’s cold, hard cash.
Raise your hand if you can guess which one will help you pay your bills. Pick only one. Got it? If you said “cash,” you’re on the right track.
Yes, that’s right. Cash. Or a check will do, if you can trust your publisher. Some people probably prefer money orders. Exposure works, but only to a very limited degree and most of the places that only pay you in exposure, frankly, aren’t going to get you a lot of bang for your buck unless a lot of people suddenly decide they can’t live without going to that site or paying for that magazine no one has ever heard of. There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are few and far between. Frankly, in most cases, you’re better off putting the story up on your website. But be smart and have somebody edit your story for you first. Somebody mean, brutal and honest, who will do what an editor is supposed to do. Go check my website. I’ve still got a few stories up there where I forgot my own advice. Your name in print and a contributor’s copy: Wonderful! You now have your name in print and if you’re lucky as many as three copies of the fanzine with your name in it. You can keep one for yourself and SELL the other two to anyone who will buy them. Now you’ve got something to show for your efforts. Free advertisement in the magazine? Sweet! Check the distribution and see if it’s worth your troubles. If they have a national distribution deal and you recognize a few of the names in the magazine with you, it might be a decent investment. Oh, and make sure you have something else to advertise, okay? If you haven’t already sold a novel, or a short story collection or even a chapbook of your poetry, the free ad won’t do you a lot of good. That brings us back to cash or the equivalent thereof. That will buy you copies of the magazine if you need them desperately. It will also cover the cost of an ad in the magazine of your choice. It will also cover the cost of postage, office supplies and the occasional power bill or phone bill. You’ll need it if you want to keep your writing business in business.
Snarky comments aside, I really do recommend going for cash. I still throw an occasional story out for free when it strikes my fancy; if it’s for a charity or for a starting magazine that has promise. Otherwise I expect to get paid. My philosophy from day one in this gig was that if I expected to make a living, I had to get paid for what I do. Same as any business and this IS a business.
Oh, and you’ll notice that none of my examples above mentioned novels. If you’ve invested the time and effort into a novel length work and you give it away for free, then you are, in my heartfelt opinion, beyond hope. Maybe you can give away an occasional short story or poem, but never, ever a novel.
One more little piece on this, and I suspect I’ll offend a few fledgling publishers and contest holders along the way. I’ll go ahead and apologize in advance for any hurt feelings. I don’t give my stories to contests that charge money. I can’t afford it for one thing and for another, it just chaps my hide. I worked hard on the story. It might not sell to all markets, it might even suck wind. Whatever the case, I worked on it. I don’t then pay somebody to read it in the hopes that out of thousands of possible entries mine will be one of a small handful, usually a maximum of three, who will then get a portion of those entry fees back as the winner of said contest. But wait! Some of those contests get you published! Yes, yes they do. And if the magazine or collection it goes into was worth a wad of chewed gum, they’d pay from the earnings they’re making from their publications, not from a large flow of money that comes in as a result of potentially thousands of submissions, each paying ten dollars or more a pop for the privilege of being read. Yes, the old adage may well be true and you might, in fact, have to spend money to make money, but no one said you had to be stupid about it. Trust me; you’ll spend money along the way without lining anyone’s pockets.
Now, just because I’m in a negative mood and being opinionated, that doesn’t mean I’m right. I’ve hardly researched the contests except to decide they aren’t right for me. The following link goes to a site that has researched them more than I have and can give you far more detailed information including links to several other sites and possibly even a contest or two.
The same rule applies (for me at least) to handing agents money for reading your novel. There are plenty of people out there who will disagree with me, I suspect. That’s fair. I never said I had all the answers. Just as I believe writing is a learning process, so too is the business of writing. I have several issues with agents in general and the way that they handle affairs, but one that stands out for me is a reading fee. If they’re looking for the next big name and I want to be the next big name, we might be able to do business, but no, I’m not handing them any amount of money to have them decide if we’re going to do business together. Once again, I simply don’t have that sort of cash flow. Even if I did, I wouldn’t keep it long if I had to hand every editor and agent out there a wad of my cash for looking over what I’ve written.
On the subject of agents: Do you need one? Maybe. I’ve had a few. Both of them did their work well enough. Neither of them ever sold a solitary piece of work for me and neither of them ever increased the value of my works. Both got fifteen percent of what I made, and both of them got paid before I did. If either of them had ever managed to increase my cash flow or managed to sell even one of my novels for me, we could have stayed together.
Here’s one of those cold, hard facts of life for you. And I warn you in advance, this one is ugly. Agents serve a valuable purpose in a lot of cases. They can A) Sell your novel. B) Help improve your novel. C) Negotiate a better contract for you. How? They can increase the value of your sale. They can maneuver to help retain your rights for sales to other companies (you know, movie rights, TV rights, reprint and foreign rights, rights in other languages, hell, maybe even the rights to the exciting action figure collection based on your work. Stranger things have happened). They can then resell those rights to other publishers or companies fro an increase in your profit margin. They can and often are the pit-bull that gets you your money when it’s due. They can and often do generally deal with aspects of the business that are uncomfortable.
They CAN do all of those things and more. A lot of them WON’T do that for YOU, unless you are a name. Why? Because you aren’t the only client that they have in most cases and if you ARE their only client, you can bet they’re going to spend a lot of time looking for more clients or they’re not going to be in business for long.
There are a thousand successful stories of writers and agents working together in perfect harmony. There are a thousand times as many writers who felt, justifiably or not, that they got the shaft somewhere along the way. That doesn’t mean they had bad agents. That means they had expectations that were not met. There is a difference.
Let’s say you get amazingly lucky and managed to get in with an agent at a prestigious agency. Congratulations! Fabulous news! Now you are one of that prestigious agent’s fifty or so clients. You have a book and you’d like said agent to sell it for you. Perfect, marvelous, wonderful. Said agent will get right on that, just as soon as authors 7-49 have been handled. How did you get stuck at number fifty? Well, hell, that’s easy. You’re new to the agent and numbers 1-49 are proven moneymakers. Clients 1-6 are the ones who are earning 6 figure advances, and also getting movies deals. They will consume the lion’s share of the agent’s time, because if said agent sells your novel for $3,000.00, the agent’s share will be $450.00. If he sells the movie rights for client number 2—the anorexic sex symbol slut daughter of a once massive name in the music industry who continues to be seen at all the right parties and makes the cover of People Magazine at least once a month—his take will be $42,500.00. It’s not just your career the agent is dealing with: there are 49 other careers to consider and, oh yeah, the ones that make the biggest cash put money on the agent’s dinner table. Agents need to eat too.
I have spoken with many authors about their agents, especially during those times when I’ve been thinking about getting one myself. A frightening percentage of those authors have explained to me that the agent didn’t sell their books but merely negotiated the contracts for them. Some of them were happy with that arrangement and others were not. I don’t point fingers here. If the agent is worth the money and can double the original offers, I think that’s wonderful. If, on the other hand, the agent is only looking over the contract and not really making any noticeable changes, why is the author giving away 15-20 percent of their earnings?
So is an agent worth it? Ask twelve different writers and you’ll get twelve different answers. What do I think? At this particular moment, no, not for me. A month or a year from now? (Note: This is an OLD article. My answer has changed. I have an amazing agent and will gladly sing his praises in person should we meet.) Maybe. There are no solid answers on this one. I and one of my agents parted on equitable terms. The other agent? Well, said agent couldn’t remember my name when I called, but had certainly been willing to take 15% of my previous novel. If the agent couldn’t remember my name, how was the agent doing me the least bit of good? If the agent thinks of me as a number and one that is low on the list of priorities, the agent sure as hell hasn’t been pitching my book to all the right people. Pitching it in the trashcan, maybe, but not to the editors and the publishing houses. I’m perfectly able to get my manuscripts thrown away all by myself, thanks just the same.
Not mentioning names, because that’s not what I’m here for. I know of one author who was doing media tie-in novels and getting handsomely rewarded for each one. The author’s agent was glad to work those deals. Said agent was getting a nice chunk of change for each and every media tie-in. Unfortunately when it came to trying to sell original fiction, the agent didn’t seem to want to bother. Agent and author parted company when said author realized the score. The agent never minded getting money for nothing, but didn’t want to be bothered to further the author’s career if there was actual work involved.
Oh and a bit of advice for you. If your agent is also handling your short stories, they’ll get 15% of that money too. A lot of agents won’t bother, of course, but you might run across a few who will handle short stories. My advice? Sell them yourself unless your agent has managed to sell a few to Playboy or The New Yorker, who pay very handsomely for the tales they publish.
Next on the list of things to seriously consider avoiding: Book doctors. Now, don’t misunderstand me here, I believe that having someone look over your work is a wonderful thing under the right circumstances. I have someone who edits my works for me from time to time and I also use several of my peers as sounding boards. I also have several of the same peers use me, because frankly, we trust each other to be honest. I have never, however, paid anyone to write me a critique of my work and tell me where I need to improve. Here’s a little tidbit for you to consider. There are several companies who will gladly look over your work and even go so far as to do a full redline edit of your work for you, for a fee. That fee can range from a small fee for the critique (Small fee in this case is a few hundred dollars) of the entire work all the way up to thousands of dollars for critique, red lines, and a few suggestions on how to make your manuscript more marketable. They’ll give a general critique, do a red line edit, or even do both together, with fees that vary greatly depending on the level of work you’re requesting. The lowest fee I’ve heard of for a full line edit was two dollars a page. I’ve heard of upwards to seven dollars a page in some cases. So, looking at the lower end of that, on my most recent manuscript, which is 281 pages, I’d be looking at $562.00 just to check for misspellings and coma splices. Then fro a critique, we’ll go low end again and say $200.00. So now, for having a book doctor study my latest manuscript, I’d be talking $762.00. Remember, that’s on the very low end of what a book doctor could charge. Using the same manuscript with some of the higher numbers I’ve run across; you could be looking at a $1,905.00 (or even higher) for a redline edit and a full critique. Here’s a rub to consider: Most first novels don’t sell for big money. Some of the book doctors out there actually charge more than the average writer is going to be offered as an advance for a first novel. How is that good business sense? “Hey, look, ma! I sold a novel for $3,500.00 and it only cost me $5,000.00 to do it!” Yeah. Do the math.
Are they any good? I have no idea. I’ve never used one. Why? Because the ones I’ve seen listed in various writer’s magazines are either rip off artists or delusional. Let’s just go with a simple example based on a site that I will not mention. I bet you could find them if you searched the web.