Thursday, 22 October 2015

Write what you know

I can't believe that I've not broached this subject before.

In the good old days, I was happy to call myself a 'Blogger' - I blogged... It's what I did, I picked a subject and desperately tried to have an opinion about it. That's what bloggers are, they're the 21st. century equivalent of that bloke that smells of urine and shouts incoherently at pigeons - Occasionally funny, but you wouldn't want to sit and listen to them for very long.

Then I released my first book, all the way back in November 2013 - 'Mumblings of an Irate Pangolin' hit the streets, well I say hit... It sort of slithered down them, with a noise reminiscent of a recently defenestrated squirrel. Some people bought it and liked it, some people didn't do either - You can't blame them really, it wasn't great literature when you get right down to it.  But I thought it was funny, and I published it myself.

I guess that's what I wanted to talk about today.  Publishing, specifically the different types of publishing available to a person like me, who initially just wanted to get a book out in a hurry, because he had a deadline (Which is an unfortunate choice of words as it happens)

I could go into the whole story, but luckily, my local paper covered it in detail - You could read about my motivation here if you really wanted to.

TL:DR - Chap with over-inflated sense of his own worth wants his Father to acknowledge him one last time before he dies.

That's maybe putting it a little starkly... But effectively that's what happened (and winter is coming), I'm OK about it - You guys already know I'm pretty shallow.

But the important thing is, I did everything to bring these first few books to the great unwashed myself.  I wrote them, proofread them, edited them, typeset them, designed the covers, chose the font, advertised them and collected all the profits.

That last one's the important one really.  I'm an OK writer, some people say I'm pretty good in fact, I'm also an OK Editor - People occasionally pay me to correct their grammer.  I can knock out a decent picture every once in a while, so I'm OK at designing book covers, but that's where my experience ends.

I don't know the first thing about advertising, wouldn't know where to start.  I'd probably be embarrassed to do what was actually required if I knew what it was.  Advertising's a bit like lying isn't it? And I'm not hugely good at that.  But if you don't advertise in the right way, people don't know that your book exists; if people don't know your book exists, they can't buy it even if they would ordinarily have wanted to. If people don't buy your book, then sitting back and collecting the profits becomes a far lonelier idea.

Createspace, the arm of Amazon that I used to self-publish my first three books sends you a notification every month of how much you have earned in royalties - This makes you feel like a 'real' writer, right up until you open the mail and realise that you can probably afford a bag of crisps with your royalty payment this month.  But don't tell anyone that, it spoils the mystique and makes you less attractive to your chosen complimentary sex.

Don't get me wrong, Self-Publishing is great.  If you use one of the online services like Createspace, it's virtually free, and you can publish anything you like - Even a list of your top 10,000 favourite crisps (not flavours, the individual crisps themselves) with notes about taste and crunchiness and which deity they most resemble. But... If you don't put your back into advertising it, the chances are, you're not going to make any money... Full stop.

So, if making money is important to you (and let's be honest, in this day and age, who doesn't want money?) how do you go about making money by writing a book?  The 'easiest' way is to take the more traditional route and get your book published for you, by people who know what they're doing. There are a few hoops that you have to jump through to even start thinking about making it a reality.  You can fall at any one of them.

First of all, you have to have a pretty good, original idea for a story.  If your story is rubbish, you may as well just give up with it and think of something else.  If one of your friends reads your story and says 'It's good, but it's also an episode of Star Trek.' You're backing a loser. Be original, I can't stress that enough.

Then you make sure it makes sense and is spelled correctly.  Whatever you do, don't just rely on the spellchecker of whatever word processor you're using, 90% of them will be set to American (or what I like to call 'simplified' English) It'll also miss where you've put 'is' instead of 'if' and idiotic things like that.  You could get a mate down the pub to take a look, and as long as their English is good... Actually, you'd be better off getting a real proofreader to take a look.  Your local writers group (which you should probably think about joining about now) is invaluable for stuff like this.

So, your story is great, the words make sense... but your book is 518,000 words long.  The next stage is editing. People have as many ideas for the length of a perfect first novel as there are perfect first novels.  But in my humble personal opinion, I'd aim for 80 - 120 thousand words.  Long enough to tell the story, but short enough for your reader not to get bored and jump off a bridge.  By all means, do a first edit yourself - See if you can trim some stuff out that's not really required.  But there's an ever-present danger that you'll see the words you've written as your precious babies and not want to get rid of them... I know I do. So again, it's good to hand this off to someone who knows what they're doing. Word of warning - You will learn to hate your editor, he/she will make you cry, they will take your cunningly crafted prose and carelessly tear great chunks out of it to wipe their bottoms on.  Editors are both a writer's best friend and their worst enemy.  Make sure you have a good relationship with yours, they will improve your book 1,000%

Writing: Done, Proofing: Done, Editing: Done. Now, all you need to do is convince a publisher to spend a fortune printing and marketing your book, with no guarantee of ever seeing a penny of profit.  Would you do that yourself? would you wager literally thousands of pounds on some no-name illegitimate nobody who's convinced that they're the next Raymond Chandler? Of course you wouldn't, you're not a mental.  But there are people out there who will happily sit between you and a publisher and act as a buffer to take some of the risk out of the transaction.  These people are called Agents... And they are the closest things to gods you will ever encounter during your publishing journey. They know publishers, they know writing, they have a good idea what sells and they are not scared of telling you that your book is rubbish... If you're really lucky, they might even have the time to tell you why (But they probably won't because they've got 100+ Raymond Chandlers in the queue waiting for their shot).  You just have to convince these people to stake their reputations on your book being saleable... Simple, right?  If they agree to work with you, they will draw up a contract that usually promises them a percentage of the money that you will make from the book, there will also be all sorts of other clauses and caltrops in there that may (or may not - Depending on how decent a sort they are) trip you up, and you could do worse than having it looked over by a professional; as with any contract that might end up costing you money in the long run.

This last paragraph is for the less than 1% of new authors that actually get this far.  If you are lucky, and good, and confident, but mostly lucky, a publisher that you have heard of will show an interest in your book... And initially that's usually all they will do.  Most publishing companies are like wily old pike.  Your agent will play them for you, like Isaak Walton on MDMA. And this can go a huge number of different ways.  You know that sign you sometimes see that says 'Your Experience May Vary'? Well, it will... No two writers get treated the same.  You might be asked to sign a deal for just the work you're pitching.  you might get offered a deal for a series of books (especially if you've told your agent that's your long-term plan) You might even be offered the holy of holies - an advance large enough that you can quit your day job and write permanently. For instance, Garth Rick Hallberg just scored a $2,000,000 advance on his debut novel 'City on Fire' - You however, will not... Don't think you will... It never happens, ever, not even once... Stop thinking about it

But you can't can you? - Why are you sat reading this rubbish? Go... Go and write something... Do it now!

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