10 Lessons that will break your heart about writing a book Follow @mistersalesman

Here are 10 LESSONS that will break your heart about writing a book. It's an AWFULLY long article but well worth the time. I've curated a portion for your enjoyment. If you like it, at the end, I'll provide the link to the full story.

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by Ian Irvine


Lesson 1: Got expectations? Lower them

Feel free to write the most beautiful, thought-provoking words in the English language. The public will feel equally free to ignore them.

Here’s the sad truth: most people who write a book will never get it published, half the writers who are published won’t see a second book in print, and most books published are never reprinted. What’s more, half the titles in any given bookshop won’t sell a single copy there, and most published writers won’t earn anything from their book apart from the advance.

So don’t expect anything from your writing apart from the personal fulfilment of having learned your craft and created a work that didn’t exist before. By all means hope to get published, and dream of having a bestseller or even a long string of them – people do, after all. But writing talent isn’t nearly enough; thousands of people have it. To succeed, you have to write the best story you possibly can, for the genre you’re writing in, and be professional in every other way. It’s the writers who work hardest at every aspect of their craft, and never give up, that get there. And when you do, enjoy the adventure while it lasts, but don’t expect it to last forever. It probably won’t.

A rare few will ignore all this and succeed, but they’re the lottery winners. Everyone else has to work at it. Just don’t expect success or you’re bound to be disappointed. Publishers are in business for the long term and they have to make a profit. If you write books that sell, your publisher will love you. If you don’t, it’s goodbye, no matter how much she likes your writing.

Lesson 2: Anyone can do it, hah!

Writers often meet people who assume that writing is easy. “I’m going to write a book one day when I get the time,” or “I’m going to take six months off and write a book and then I’ll use the advance to write full time/go round the world/pay off the mortgage.”

Writing isn’t easy and, even after you’ve been doing it for a few years, you’re still a novice. If you want to be a successful writer, be prepared to work as hard, and as long, as if you wanted to be a violinist in an orchestra, a professional cricketer or, God forbid, a lawyer. Rarely, someone will write a book and get it published straight away, but that’s pretty unusual. I was once in a roomful of writers when that question was asked, and only three writers raised their hands. Most writers work for 5-10 years before getting their first book published (my first took 9 years.) See also my Writing Tips on this site.

Remember the 10,000-hour rule. That’s roughly how much work and practice it takes to become accomplished in any field, whether it be sporting, creative or professional. 10,000 hours is 5 years of full time hard work. To become a virtuoso, triple that.

Lesson 3: Skiing across the slush pile

In this country, the big publishers each receive 4-5,000 unsolicited fiction manuscripts a year. That’s around a hundred a week. The situation is much the same in the UK , Canada and the US – the only difference being that the bigger countries have more publishers.

Publishing is a competitive and low profit business, and no publisher can afford to pay people to read manuscripts. Some publishers no longer look at unsolicited manuscripts – they simply return them if postage is provided, or shred them if it isn’t. Where they do look at manuscripts, it will only be the professionally presented ones – perhaps half the total. Of that 2,500, say, 90% will be rejected on the first page and 98% by the end of the first chapter. That leaves 30-50 manuscripts, and they’re the only ones which will get any kind of serious consideration. In a good year, ten of those might be published. In a bad year, less than five.

Most published books come through agents these days, but no agent can afford to spend a lot of time reading manuscripts from unknowns either. Most agents won’t even look at an unsolicited manuscript and again, most manuscripts an agent does consider will be rejected on the first page.

The lesson is obvious: your story has to start in the first paragraph, with an interesting character facing some kind of problem that captures the reader’s interest or concern, and your very best writing has to be up front. Once you’ve done that, work on your contacts because agents get most of their manuscripts from referrals – it’s the only practicable way to filter out the few good books from the vast morass of manuscripts that aren’t publishable. Before you send your work off, make sure you present it in standard manuscript format, as set out in my Writing Tips. If you don’t, it’s likely to be discarded without another glance.

But how do you get your work in front of that agent or editor in the first place? Make contacts at book fairs, writers’ workshops and festivals, and other places where the industry gets together, then use them. Write to your contacts with your idea and perhaps a couple of sample pages (the first pages, obviously). If they like what they see, your manuscript is now a solicited one. It still won’t be published if it’s no good, but at least it’s at the top of the queue to be read.

Lesson 4: What to do when you’re rejected

Once you’ve done all that, and been rejected, send your work to another publisher right away. After all, it’s just one editor’s opinion and what one editor hates, another may love. If you’ve sent it to ten publishers and they’ve all rejected it, it’s time to rewrite it. If you’ve sent it to twenty, chuck it away and start again. If forty, assuming you can find that many publishers, write something else and change your name.

To experience the extraordinary diversity of opinions any work will get, check out the reader reviews, for any book you know well, on For a laugh, take a look at what sixty-odd readers say about my first book, A Shadow on the Glass. One reader will attack the book, the author, editor, proof-reader, publisher and everyone else associated with it, as if mere publication of this book was a personal insult. The next reader will say it’s the best book they’ve ever read.

Don’t take rejection to heart. I once had my editor knock back a manuscript as ‘unpublishable’. A fortnight later my agent sold it to another publisher for lots of money, they offered me a three-book contract into the bargain, and the book went on to get nice reviews in the UK and US.

Lesson 4a: Why most writers will never get published

If you’re continually being rejected, it’s time for ruthless self-analysis. These are the most common reasons that fiction manuscripts are rejected:

The writer simply can’t write;
The writer has written a first draft and submitted it without bothering to edit it. No professional would submit a first draft;
The storyline and characters are directly recycled from well known novels, TV shows, movies or computer games;
It’s not a story, just a series of unrelated events; or it’s a polemic or rant, or a poorly disguised religious tract
It’s grossly violent, libellous, pornographic, depraved or offensive, or off-the-planet weird;
It’s not appropriate for the publisher you sent it to, or their publishing schedule is already full; or
The public simply aren’t buying that kind of stuff at the moment.
Listen to what people are telling you about your work. If you do have talent, take the advice of professionals and you’ll immediately have an edge over most of your competitors, because few unpublished writers are really willing or able to act on criticism.

Lesson 5: Wow, you’ve actually been offered a contract

As a beginning writer, if a respectable publisher offers you a book contract, sign it. The chance may not come again. As a novice, you’re not worth much to a publisher, so you have little power to negotiate. If you demand a lot of changes to a contract, or cause interminable delays, the publisher may withdraw the offer and go to the next writer on their list. After all, a writer who causes trouble before the contract is signed is bound to be an even bigger pain afterwards.

By all means ask your agent about the contract before you sign, then take her advice. Be very wary about taking the contract to your solicitor. Few lawyers know anything about book contracts or the realities of publishing. If they get involved, they’ll probably lose you the contract then bill you for most of the advance you didn’t get.

If you haven’t got an agent, get one now; it’s easy once you have an offer from a publisher. Publishers have to be hard-headed businessmen, but they tend to think of authors as amateurs who should be grateful to be published at all. If you’re equally hard-headed they may see you as aggressive and hard to deal with, which is counterproductive to a good working relationship. Let your agent do the hard-headed stuff while you be the nice, creative one who is, after all, giving them the product they require to stay in business, and everyone’s happy.

Agents normally take 15% but she’ll earn back her commission so she costs you nothing, and she may negotiate a few small extras. Once she’s done a deal for you, she’s entitled to her percentage of all income earned from that deal for as long as it lasts, even if you subsequently change agents. For foreign rights or special deals (eg movie rights – as if!), she’ll work through other agents who also get a percentage.

Once you’ve got an agent, never talk directly to your publishers or editors about contractual matters. You could disastrously undermine negotiations your agent is having with them, eg your agent is negotiating hard for a $20,000 advance and you’ve just told your editor you’d be happy with $10,000. Bad move!

Lesson 6: Understanding your advance

Every new book represents a risk to the publisher, who is gambling tens of thousands of dollars that it will sell enough copies to earn a profit. Most books barely cover their costs or at best earn a small profit, and this is particularly the case with books by unknown authors. Therefore, publishers have to keep costs down by offering small advances.

An advance is just that – an advance against future royalties – and the author doesn’t get any money from book sales until the advance has been earned back by royalties from sales. The advance is seldom more than half to two-thirds of what the publisher expects the book to earn in royalties, insurance in case it does badly. As an example, say the book retails for $20 (plus tax), the author’s royalty rate is 10% and the publisher expects to sell 5,000 copies. If it does, the book would earn the author $20 X 0.10 X 5,000, i.e. $10,000 in royalties. The publisher would normally offer an advance of between $5,000 and $7,000 and the balance would be paid in royalties at a later date.

Despite that policy, a lot of books don’t earn back their advances. A few years ago, two of the biggest international publishers had to write off tens of millions of dollars in unearned advances.

Most book advances in Australia, the UK and the US are less than $10,000. Surprisingly, most advances in the UK and US aren’t a lot higher than here, despite the much bigger markets. Why not? There are a lot more titles published, a lot more competition and, in the case of the US, much more fragmented markets.

If you’re writing children’s fiction, advances are typically lower than the figure I’ve quoted, despite the Harry Potter phenomenon. The reason – kid’s books sell for a lower price. Partly offsetting that, the ones that do well can stay in print for a long time. For literary fiction, which may get the reviews and the awards but doesn’t sell well, expect advances to be lower again: maybe only $1,000 – $3,000.

When you finally get the advance, don’t spend it on something wasteful like food, clothing or rent. You’re going to need every penny to promote your book, because the chances are that no one else will (see Lesson 13).

Lesson 7: Why you don’t want a huge advance

We all dream about the million dollar advance but, believe me, if you’re unknown you’re better off with a moderate one. Huge advances create huge expectations and as an unknown author there’s a good chance your sales won’t meet expectations, in which case you’re probably doomed. Once booksellers get a whiff of declining sales, they’ll start returning your books, and if they’re not in the bookshops no one will be able to buy them. Then, because your first book flopped the bookshops won’t order many of the second (if there is one), guaranteeing that it’ll sell even less.

Example. Suppose the publisher gives you a $50,000 advance for your first book, thus expecting it to sell at least, say, 40,000 copies. Unfortunately, despite lots of promotion, it only sells 10,000 copies. The publisher has done their dough and they and the booksellers will see you as a loser. You’ll find it hard to sell a second book to that publisher. If another publisher does pick up your second book, you’ll be lucky to get a $10,000 advance and orders will be much lower.

Instead, suppose the publisher advances you $10,000 for your first book. If it sells 6,000 copies they’re in the money. If it reprints a few times and sells 15,000 copies they’ll love you and offer a much bigger advance for your second book. The bookshops will increase their orders and display your books prominently, and there’ll be a small buzz about you in the industry. Do that two or three times and you’re a rising star.

Lesson 8. Why you don’t want a tiny advance either.

A tiny advance is a vote of no confidence in your work; it means the publisher isn’t risking much on you, and therefore won’t need to spend a lot of money on promotion. The promotional budget for your book is, generally, directly related to the size of the advance.

On the other hand, you have the opportunity, by your own clever promotional initiatives, to have a significant impact on sales. If the publisher is hoping to sell 4,000 copies and you can get that up to 6,000, they’ll be very impressed. Publishers love authors who work hard to sell their books, and you’ll get a better deal next time, and more promotion.

Lesson 9: Your editor is wise and you are foolish

Don’t believe all that nonsense you read about books not being edited any more. My editors put many weeks of work into each of my books, and always have. One of the best things about being published is having the opportunity to craft and polish your work with the aid of an experienced, sensitive professional.

Editors are overworked and underpaid, but they know a lot more about writing and the marketplace than you do, and they’re usually right. Consider carefully every point your editor makes. Where you reject an editorial suggestion, make sure there’s a good reason for it. I would agree with 9 out of 10 suggestions my editor makes. If you’re rejecting most of them, you’ve got a problem. In rare cases an editor may be wrong for your book, but more likely the problem is that you can’t accept criticism. In that case, kiss your writing career goodbye.

Beginning writers have less leeway than established ones. An established writer can ignore most of her editor’s suggestions and still be published (though few would be so unprofessional). A novice who does so may never be published. If your editor tells you to cut your 1000 page manuscript to 500 pages, do it. Cutting a long book almost invariably makes it better. Big books cost a lot more to edit, print and distribute, but a publisher can’t charge much more for them. That’s OK if they’re by a bestselling author, but it’s a recipe for losing money if they’re the work of a novice.

Once you’ve had a few books published, your editor’s comments will fall into a familiar pattern – an introductory paragraph of effusive praise followed by many pages of detailed comments and suggestions. Don’t let the praise go to your head – she’s not going to rubbish a book the publisher has already paid good money for. Neither get too downcast about the cumulative effect of all those critical comments (my last book, The Life Lottery, had 28 pages of them). They’re intended to make the book better and, after all, the publisher has paid good money for it, and must think it’s a goer.

Your manuscript will generally go through two stages of editing. The structural edit largely looks at the big picture, after which you do your major revisions, then there’s the copy edit (or line edit), which attends to the line by line details. Some publishers frown on the author making significant changes at the line edit stage. Get the book right during editing, because major changes at the proof stage (ie, after it’s been typeset) are very expensive. If you insist on rewriting your proofs, you may have to pay for the changes and they won’t be cheap.

If you’re published in more than one country, you may have to deal with a number of editors. British publishers are often happy with Australian editing; American publishers will want to change the spelling, at least, but may also re-edit the story to suit the sensitivities of the US market, or their own editorial concerns. This can cause problems if they’re undoing changes you’ve made to suit your original editor. On the other hand, it’s better than not being published there at all.

Lesson 10: The book production line

There’s a lot goes on behind the scenes that you don’t know about and publishers like to have the manuscript ready for editing 9-12 months before the publication date. Your publisher won’t schedule the publication date until she has the manuscript in hand, because late changes to the schedule are inconvenient, embarrassing and expensive. If your book is scheduled for October, say, to take advantage of the pre-Christmas sales period, and you deliver a month too late, publication is likely to be delayed for months. The publisher’s schedule is set at least six months in advance and there may not be an available slot for you to be published in November. Few books are published in December or January, and February is the slowest sales month of the year. Furthermore, promotional opportunities such as space in booksellers’ catalogues may already be booked up, so if you miss your chance you may not get another.

About 20 milestones have to be met in the production of your book, including:

book design (including cover design, layout and typography)
editing (several stages)
typesetting and proofreading (3 stages)
cover brief and preparation of cover art (3 or more stages)(sometimes a number of cover roughs will be produced. It’s not uncommon for a cover to be rejected during this process and a new cover concept formulated, or even for a new artist to be commissioned)
several program meetings to keep key people up to date
cover copy
sales brief
cover proof and printing
text printing and binding
delivery to warehouse (usually a month before publication date)
delivery of initial orders to the bookshops in time for publication date
In an emergency, eg for a really topical book or a blockbuster author who delivers late, all this can be done in two months. For everyone else, where a book is to be published in, say, October, this process would begin in January or February, after the manuscript has been accepted and editing is underway, and be completed in late August when finished books are delivered to the warehouse. In a publishing house, decisions to approve these milestones are normally made in meetings, not by individuals.

Australian and British publishers will generally consult you about the covers, though they won’t necessarily adopt your suggestions, which is fine. They ought to know what constitutes a good cover in their marketplace. American publishers may not consult you at all, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. American covers are so different to Australian and British ones that you may not have anything useful to contribute. eg, American fantasy covers without people on them rarely succeed, whereas to the Australian and British eye such covers often look cute or twee. Australian or British publishers may ask you to provide copy for the blurb. American publishers will probably write their own and may change the title to suit their own sensibilities or markets.

Lesson 10A: You’re not published until you’re in print (and sometimes not even then)

Deals fall over for all sorts of reasons, so don’t count your chickens until they’re roosting in a thousand bookshops. Here are some of the most common problems.

There was a ‘misunderstanding’ when the publisher made your agent an offer for your book. You don’t get a publishing contract after all, or you get a contract but a worse deal than originally offered.
The publisher goes bankrupt before your book is published. If they’ve paid the advance, you keep it. If they haven’t, you’re back in the queue.
Your editor leaves or is fired and her replacement hates your book and decides not to publish it. You keep the advance though.

The publisher is having a tough time and decides that they would lose money publishing your book, so cans it. You keep the advance and, if you’re lucky, they might pay you a small sum in lieu.
The editor loves your book and offers a terrific hardcover deal and great promotion, but the sales department or the major book buyers don’t agree that it has big sales potential. You get downgraded to paperback, with little or no promotion, and your potential income and sales are massively reduced.

Your book is found to be libellous and the publisher doesn’t want to get sued, so they cancel publication, or if it’s been printed, withdraw the book and pulp it. You’ve violated your contract and have to pay back the advance, and they could even sue you for their losses.

Your non-fiction book is proven to be fraudulent, ditto.
Lesson 10B: Putting your money where your manuscript is

If all else fails, and you’re really sure that you’ve written a good book, there’s one resort left – publishing it yourself. This isn’t easy, and it definitely isn’t cheap, but if you’ve got months to spare and at least $10,000 lying around with nothing to spend it on, you could consider self-publishing. Two of Australia’s best selling writers began that way, and many other writers have in other countries.

But the vast majority of self-publishers do their dough, so if you are going to do it, do it right, and get the right advice, otherwise you might as well tear your money up and flush it down the toilet. You must employ a professional editor, a professional cover designer and have the book typeset. This will cost you $5,000 – $6,000, or more if your book is long and requires a lot of editing. Printing will cost you another $4,000 – $6,000, or more if it’s long or you have a lot of copies printed.

Don’t print more than 500. The biggest problem of all is distribution, which is why publishers have invested millions in it. It takes the most monumental effort for an individual to sell more than 300 – 400 copies, even if you get some good publicity and a few bookshops stock your books. Print too many and they’ll still be rotting in your garage in a decade.


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