Do you wanna be rich or famous?

I’ve caught a lot of grief from folks who have fully drunk the kool-aid of traditional publishing, and got into this conversation sideways with a fellow writer I know and like, so I thought I would post some thoughts on modern publishing. Some of you will roll your eyes and stick pins in your voodoo dolls at me, but I don’t have a day job and support myself fully from my writing, and I don’t know many TradPub folks who can say the same.

First caveat: If you have a little more, it is better to build a longer table than a higher fence.

That’s actually my corporate mission statement, right there in the incorporation papers themselves, to remind me that while I’m somewhere in the middle at this gig, there are people ahead of me who have taught me useful things, and in turn, it is my job to help teach the folks who have not gotten here yet, so they can determine where they want to go with their career.

Second caveat: You are responsible for your own career.

My career is not like yours. That’s okay. What worked for me might not work for you, and things you do might work spectacularly for you that I couldn’t get my head wrapped around. Go, you.

Third caveat: The world has changed.

We are in the middle of the seventh revolution in indie publishing. SEVENTH. Every 18-30 months, something so completely upends the galaxy of indie press that much of what you might have done even two years ago is now outdated, or wrong, or can be done so much easier now that you would be a fool not to transition. Example: Vellum on a macbook air. I can take a properly formatted word document and turn it into epub, mobi, pdf (print), and apple books in less than 15 minutes. And done. How many hours are you spending fighting your old software or techniques to make one book pretty? Now appreciate that I plan to publish roughly 20-25 novel-length project in 2019.

Okay, so now let’s talk about your career options. There are no more mid-range career writers in TradPub. New York got rid of them over the last decade or so. They are starting to get rid of the best-selling authors now as well, by offering them advances that knock a zero or more off the contract. (Think $100,000 last time turns to $10,000, or even $5,000 for the next book. It is happening to people whose books you own. They are frantically trying to reinvent their career, because the old money is gone. And never coming back.)

If you are lucky enough to be that one person over whose debut novel a bidding war erupts, congratulations. One of those happens about every year. ONE. How many of you are there out there competing for that one slot?

What happens then is your first book has to sell gang-busters IN THE FIRST WEEK. You read that right. It hits the shelves at B&N and wherever else. If you don’t sell enough copies from Tuesday to Monday (the traditional publishing week), you won’t get a contract for book 2. None.

I’m sorry, but that’s the current state of Traditional Publishing, in early 2019. Whatever you learned ten or twenty years ago is no longer relevant. Not just wrong. Irrelevant.

So you can embrace the future, or drown with the past. Again, I’m sorry, but your chances of ever getting a book deal again go down every quarter.

Fourth caveat: I’m 100% Indie.*

  • – I got a single title outstanding that might qualify for “traditional enough,” if the editor decides that she needs it in her anthology, sometime in the next year or so. TBD.

In the old days, you wrote stories and sent them to the magazines. They bought them, or rejected them with letters that you should learn from. Eventually, maybe you got to be good enough and well enough known that you could put together a collection of short fiction, maybe some of it award winning (Yay!!!), and find a medium press to publish it. ( know a few still in that business that I can introduce you to.)

Eventually, you wrote a novel. Shopped it to agents until you found one, who in turn shopped it to the Big Five. (Or Big Twelve in those days.) If you were lucky. Maybe they took it and gave you an advance, against which you had to earn out, with all sorts of expenses, to see your first penny.

My SWAG is that a contract these days might pay you ten cents on a book sale. Not ten percent. 10c. Maybe less. More if you were already famous and had a following that would move books and put you on an important Best-Seller List (I’ll take this rude moment to remind you that Kim Kardasian and Snookie are both NYT Best Selling Authors).

And you will never get those rights back. (You can, but you have to wait decades and file on the right date, or you’re out of luck, and most authors forget or never knew.) In the old days, you might get rights reverted to you when the book stopped selling, rather than go through a second printing, but today, ebooks are never “out of print” and don’t cost anything to keep up. You will never get those rights back.

So, first point of wailing and gnashing of teeth: Do you want to be rich, or famous?

What do want out of your career, when I tell you that being struck by lightning is more likely than achieving both fame and fortune from writing? JK Rowling. Suzanne Collins and the Hunger Games. Etc. You can count them on both hands and be done.

If you want to be able to walk into a bookstore and see your name on a book, then you can do it, but you’ll probably never stop having a day job. I’m sorry, but I know too many people who went down that path, and that’s their current reality.

If you want to be able to not have a day job, the only way you are likely to do that is via Indie Publishing. And those rules are different. And different today from what they were two years go, let alone ten. After the conversation with my friend MD, Fabulous Publisher Babe(tm) took a lot of notes for me and I’ll be doing a new B4B on basic marketing things you should be doing with your career, from the perspective of someone who does not have a day job any more.

Or, as the joke went this morning: another day of not wearing pants. Powerful stuff.

Indie is not enough. You are competing now with a world where everyone is going Indie, because they have seen the writing on the wall, or already been kicked to the curb by TradPub.

You will need to be a good writer. I can’t help you with that, but work to develop a good voice and then learn to write clean first drafts with lots of voice. I know too many MFA-trained folks who rewrite so many times that what is left is vanilla pablum. Leave it raw, and learn to write it clean. I don’t rewrite. Ever, I write this one as well as I can, and then try to write the next one better.

Next: write novels. That’s what the audience demands. I don’t care how amazing a story you can tell in 3200 words. Start generating them at 40-80k. Novels. People want to read novels.

Finally: Series. Television has taught consumers of media to expect long arcs of stories, spread over seasons, returning again and again to these characters they have gotten wrapped up in. I just completed writing the Ninth (and Last) Jessica Keller novel (Tentative title: Petron). Those novels sell well, because I tell a good story, with interesting characters and a compelling universe, and you can binge hard on them.

The Science Officer novella series is the same way. Season One is eight novellas that tell an arc. And I’ll start Season Two this summer, maybe. Nine more. Long, happy arcs as these characters live their interesting lives.

Got all that? Bitch at me all you want, but you’re likely wrong. I’m sorry to say it, but that is the formula for success today. Note: TODAY. It might change again in a few years, and people will be back to wanting individual novels that are entirely self-contained, but I doubt it. Television has taught them otherwise. Look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where they’ve released 19(??) movies so far, interweaving story lines and characters.

That’s what you are up against. Serialized stories over long arcs. It’s been like this for a very long time in what we call genre fiction. Mystery. Fantasy. Science Fiction. Romance. Etc. Why did Doyle keep coming back to Holmes? Money. And readers wanted mre. Why is LOTR three books? Why are there so many other Tolkien bits and pieces out there?

Traditional Publishing will not make you rich. Unless you like being struck by lightning. All I ever wanted was to make enough money from my writing that I could make a living making shit up, without ever putting pants on again.

If you want to be famous, keep querying agents, and understand that you will probably end your life with a file folder of rejection letters. And never write your second novel.

For comparison, I’m about halfway through my twenty-fifth novel today. 25. (Plus about a dozen novellas.) And my plan is to write roughly 20 more novels in 2019. Just in 2019. I will generate a lot of product, because once I hook a reader, they will go buy all of my back catalog. Probably they’ll only end up liking 75% of it, but you cannot please everyone all of the time. You are not pizza. 🙂

I make a living from my writing. And with each novel or novella that I publish, generally my sales numbers eke up a little and don’t come down as far as they went up. But there are only two (I think) bookstores you could walk into, and have any chance of finding one of my books in paper. (One is always a maybe, and the other depends on the owner finally selling them, after he took them all home to read. Long story.)

In calendar 2017 (last time I did a full report) my paper sales were 0.3% of my total sales. Three tenths of one percent, not three percent. 92 paper/32,000 ebooks. I don’t care if I’m famous.

No, that’s not true. I want to grow up to be Bernie Taupin. (Bonus credit if you didn’t just have to look him up.) Nobody knows who he is, but he’s richer than you can imagine, and could walk into the coffee shop and sit next to you and you would never know it.

I made the decision very early on that I wanted to be rich. That’s my career arc. You are responsible for your own career, but you need to understand that the world has changed.

Good luck, and let me know what questions I can answer. We’re all in this together, and I’m trying to build a longer table.


One thought on “Do you wanna be rich or famous?

  1. Michael W Lucas

    As a full-time writer myself: this is EXACTLY how you do it. Seriously.

    I have thirty-odd books out. Really should count them some time, but why bother, the number will just be obsolete in a few weeks.

    Perfect your craft. Produce entertainment. Hook readers. Have fun.

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