Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Questions Beginning Writers Ask (That Experienced Writers Are Tired of Hearing)

Life isn't easy for writers who are just starting out. You're full of questions, ranging from "do you think I could get this published?" to "do I need an agent?" You're frustrated, and it doesn't help that most of the "established" writers you turn to roll their eyes at you like you're asking the dumbest thing in the world. You just want a little guidance, and you'd prefer it come from someone who's walked down this particular path before, so they can point out all the sand traps and pitfalls you might otherwise walk right into.

Watch out for them vanity presses... they sting like a sonofabitch!
The truth is that we want to help... we really do. We're just exhausted because every time a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed hopeful walks up to us and asks the same questions it's like we're living through the literary equivalent of Groundhog Day. So, while some of my colleagues are no doubt rubbing their eyes and contemplating dropping a toaster in the tub, here are some accurate (though not terribly polite) answers to some of the most common questions beginning writers have.

Note: If your question isn't on the list, leave it in the comments, and I'll try to find an appropriate answer for you.

Questions You Need Answers To (That We're Sick of Hearing)

No you will not get rich doing this. You get that one for free.
How Much Does it Cost to Get Published?

Nothing. Ever.

For those who are looking for a more comprehensive answer, here's the low down on how the publishing industry works. You, the author, write a story. You send that story (or novel, or whatever) to the publisher. The publisher then chooses the books it thinks will succeed. It publishes those books (taking care of cover art, putting the book up for sale online, all those details). A good publisher will also try to get your book reviewed, and hopefully set you up with interviews. When you get published traditionally, the publisher keeps most of the profits, cutting the author around 10 percent (though the exact amount varies by contract). The percentage you earn from sales is called your royalties.

If a publisher is charging you for the privilege of being published, then it is in all likelihood a vanity press. A vanity press will tell you how great and brilliant your writing is, and offer to publish your book, and then to let you buy copies of it. The cost of these copies will be greatly outside what a book should cost, because the vanity press is making money off of you, and everyone else they "publish".

But What About Self-Publishing?

You don't pay to be self-published either. If you are self-published you simply use a service like Amazon's Createspace to take your manuscript and put it in ebook and print-on-demand format. You don't pay to do those things, just like you don't pay Random House to publish your novel. You simply format your manuscript according to the program's requirements, create a cover, edit all the internal stuff, and then slap it on the net for anyone to buy.

Now, you can buy copies of your own book to hand sell. Hand selling is when you have an event, or you're going to a convention, and you want to sell copies of your book directly to fans. You have to pay for those books, but typically you will get them at cost, which means you still make a profit when you hand sell. And if you choose not to hand sell? That's fine, you can still sell online and make money doing that, too.

I Can't Tell You My Idea, You Might Steal It!

All right, princess, let us get one thing straight, here; no one is going to steal your idea. And even if they were, you can't copyright an idea. Unless you lay out every, single plot twist, character name, and deus ex machina, no one is going to write your book, then claim they were the genius behind it. And even if they do, you can still write your version, because chances are it's going to be different anyway.

Besides, it isn't stealing if someone writes 100k words to bring their idea to life, even if what you said inspired them to do it. Why? Because I guarantee you that if you and another writer are both told the same idea, the end products are going to be very different.

Do I Put Two Spaces After A Period?

No. Furthermore, don't use the tab button for your indents. Instead, create an automatic indent. Constantly hitting the tab key creates a massive headache for editors, who may reject you on that basis alone.

Also, don't put two spaces between paragraphs. That's just weird, and I don't know who told you to do it.

Do You Want To Read This Totally Unedited Thing I'm Probably Going To Change?

No, I don't. Neither does anyone else. Do you know why? It's because we are busy writing our own books, and you didn't even have the good grace to clean up this sloppy paragraph and a half you just slapped onto the screen.

If you're looking for a pat on the head and affirmation that you're a genius, stuff it in your gob and find a different profession. If you genuinely need assistance with something, or you're looking for real feedback, edit it first. Then, once it's edited, turn it over to your beta readers. Beta readers, if you're not familiar with the term, are your pre-editing team. They're the researchers, geeks, genre buffs, and writer friends who can point out all your remaining mistakes. If you don't have any, check out The Five Types of Beta Readers Every Writer Should Have in order to get a sense of what you're looking for.

How Do I Sell Books?

There comes a time in every author's life where he or she realizes that the lightning hasn't struck, and their books aren't flying off the shelves. Most of us have been so focused on the work of writing the book that, once we've finished it, we're totally lost regarding what we should do.

Here's the answer; market the shit out of your book.

Earlier I mentioned that a good publisher will do some of the marketing for you, but more often than not the publisher won't do a whole hell of a lot of anything. If you want reviews then you have to contact the reviewers. If you want to be interviewed for the paper, then you have to get in touch with a reporter. You are the one who needs to create a social media presence, interact with your fans, and make sure the word gets out.

Because if you don't, no one else is going to either.

While we're on this topic, why not check out my book's free sample?

Do I Need An Agent?

No, you don't. An agent is like flying first class instead of coach; nice, but you're all on the same damn plane.

Here's a brief explanation, for those who know that agents exists, but who have no idea what they do. An agent is someone who has contacts in the publishing industry. They're sort of like ex-cops or former soldiers; they're not in the game anymore, but they still know people. The agent represents your work, and talks to these people on your behalf. If you sell your book, the agent gets a cut of everything you make. The agent handles contract costs, communications with the publisher, and all that jazz, but you are, in essence, paying for the agent's contacts and his or her representation.

Again, you don't pay up front. The agent gets a cut of what you earn, which means agents are very selective about which authors they choose to represent.

Now, if you want to get in with a big publisher like Random House or Penguin, you either need contacts of your own, or you need an agent. Big publishers use agents as a way to screen out authors they don't want to waste time with. If you're going to a medium, or a small publisher, though, then you won't need an agent.

How Do I Know What A Publisher Wants?

Go to their website. Look for the page that says Author's Guidelines. This will lay out all the things your book, or short story, or whatever has to have for them to consider it. If you don't meet all of those qualifications, then do not send it in. Better to be unknown than to have editors refer to you as, "that one dipshit who can't follow instructions."

So, that covers the basics. If you've got other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments. If you want to make sure you don't miss my updates, the follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to toss some bread in my jar, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today!


  1. I tell most new writers the same thing. Look it up - there are thousands of blogs on writing. There are articles, magazines, newsletter, organizations, critique groups, etc etc that cover every possible question. If you can't find what you're looking for - Google it. That's how I got my answers when I started out.

  2. This is awesome, I am not a published author so I have had some of these questions as well. The only difference is that I ask Google rather than pestering an established author.