I recently spoke to students in the Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society at the University of Maine at Farmington on how to start a writing career. Here are the notes from my talk.
Delighted to be here.
Sigma Tau Delta invited me to talk about getting published and managing a writing career.
I graduated from UMF with a writing-related degree in 1990.
Over the course of my life, I have published 28 books and about 100 shorter pieces. I’ve done several different kinds of writing and I’ve published a number of different ways.
Most recently, I have published a fantasy novel The Witches of Crannock Dale, which I am excited about.
Available UMF store.
So, I like to think I know a little about the subject.
I’ll begin, however, with a question for you. Before I start talking, I’d like to know more about your writing and your experiences.
What do you write? What are your goals? If you’ve published, how did you go about it?
I’m going to move into the next part of this talk by offering an overarching observation that applies to almost everything else I’m going to say.
I’m borrowing this from Carl von Clausewitz, who was originally talking about war.
Everything about publishing is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.
The process of getting your novel published by Random House is straightforward. You write letters to agents until one agrees to represent you, your agent writes to an editor at Random House, and you get an advance for a hundred thousand dollars.
So, to a large extent, getting published is about putting in the work – learning who the agents are, learning how they like to be approached and writing one query letter after another.
At the same time, one could spend one’s life doing this and never get anywhere.
One of the main reasons is that so many people are trying to do this. An agent can get over 20,000 queries a year.
Therefore – and again, this is sort of like war – it is usually smart to consider your situation and look for an approach that gives you some sort of advantage.
To begin with, you can think about where you want to publish.
If you choose Random House, you probably have to have an agent, but if you choose a smaller company you may be able to skip agents and contact the editor at the publishing house directly.
If you write SFF, Tor is a large publisher which accepts queries directly from authors.
Also, you can think about what you might be writing that the other 19,999 people are not?
For instance, I got started writing supplements for role-playing games. That was in the 1980s, when far fewer people paid attention to them.
You can ask whether there are publishers who specialize in your niche.
Today you have another option – self-publishing.
This is new. It is different from vanity publishing. People do make money at it.
For discussions of how to earn grown-up sums of money from indie writing, consider applying for membership in the Facebook group 20Booksto50K.
Self-publishing doesn’t always seem quite as simple as traditional publishing – especially when you are getting started – but if you go step by step, you will end up with a book.
I will be posting a checklist after Thanksgiving.
If you can invest some money in professional help, it’s even simpler.
The difficult part about succeeding with self-publishing is that once you have published your book, you are solely responsible for convincing people to buy it.
HOWEVER, going traditional will not necessarily get you out of that.
Some publishers have built in markets – gaming again. Also, academics.
Publishers who sell to the general public increasingly expect authors to do their own marketing work.
So, if you write fiction, memoirs or popular non-fiction, it makes an increasing amount of sense to cut the publishers out of the loop and keep more of the royalties for yourself.
To wrap up, I will say one final thing about the subject. There is a lot of tribalism among authors who publish different ways. Self-publishing used to be sort of marginal, and you’ll find people who will say, well, if you don’t have a publisher, you’re not a real writer. Meanwhile, if you go on-line, you’ll find other people who say traditional publishing is obsolete etc. Personally, I have published both ways, and I would say that both ways are perfectly valid. It’s a matter of figuring out which one is going to be best for you.