Warnings To Writers

The publishing industry is fraught with desperation and peril for the new author. You have finished your first manuscript and you clutch it tightly in your mitts as you wander into the dark forest of agents, publishers, and scammers all alone.

To be honest, it sucks.

Having wandered in that forest for a while now, I’d like to share my experience with some of the pitfalls I’ve fallen into. The mistakes I’ve made are easy to avoid and a little knowledge can go a long way, so here it is; my insights for dealing with the publishing industry.

  1. Do not, for any reason, go to small press publishers.

Personally, I was excited when I got the e-mail informing me that a small publisher out of Canada wanted to acquire my book.  I took it as confirmation that I had finally arrived and was now a “real” author. The contract I signed even sounded reasonable. My publisher promised to edit my book, design a cover, and publish my book online in exchange for 70% of the sales revenue to be paid every six months. In return, I gave him the rights to my book for five years after the publishing date (and it took him a year to publish).

“This is great!” I thought. Now, I could get to work on my next novel and leave the messy bit of selling to my publisher. But hold the phone here, buddy. First off I have to say, the editing was pretty terrible. It seems the publisher was simply willing to contract with any schmuck on the internet who would provide editing services. Long story short, I spent a month frantically correcting all her mistakes before the publishing deadline…fun. Then came the little detail about selling the book.

The publisher, it seems, had no intention of spending any time or money on promoting any of his author’s works. And as the contract didn’t say he had to, there was no obligation. Naively, I assumed that he’d promote it as he was to receive 70%, but sadly no.

Folks, believe me when I say that promotion matters. There are hundreds of thousands of books on Amazon and no one besides your mother is going to buy yours unless it’s well promoted. Advertising costs money, blogging takes time, and conventions are expensive. The small press publisher counts on the author’s ego to promote his own book…while the publisher collects 70%!

It’s been four years since I published that first novel and every six months I do get a check from that publisher. And when it arrives, I take my wife out to dinner, and I say to her, “Honey, you can have anything on your hot dog that you want.”

2. Beware of scammers.

For all the pitfalls of my first experience with a small publisher, it pales in comparison to working with a scammer. How do you know that a supposed publisher is actually a scammer? Well, it can be tricky I’ll admit as they try their best to look legit. But in general, any publisher who asks for you to pay them money at any time for any reason is a scammer. Remember, your selling the product to them, not the other way around!

3. A word on self-publishing.

It takes about twenty minutes to upload your e-book on Amazon and that includes brewing the cup of coffee you’ll be sipping as you do. Hire your own editor if you can, and then do a few favors for that artist friend of yours to get her to do your cover, and boom, just like that you’re published. Now all you have to do is promote your book yourself (which you’d have to do anyway with a small press publisher but this time you get 100%).

Since your reaping all the rewards from your efforts, it can be worth the expense to buy those ads and such. However, unless you know a lot about marketing, this can be a real pain in the butt. Pimping your book ain’t easy, and it will take a considerable amount of time and money to reach an audience.

4. Big-time publishers still exist.

Sure, you can pitch your book to an agent or go directly to one of the big New York publishing houses. These companies have been around for generations and have survived for a reason. They do not want to put out any sub-quality book as it may tarnish their reputation. Therefore, they use in-house editors, professional cover artists, and do all they reasonably can to promote their books. However, the downside is they are extremely risk-averse. If they take you on, they will have to spend a lot of money doing all the above things and they are barely hanging on in this digital age as it is. New authors with no audience are a great risk and your book is just one of thousands they get every day. Getting published with these guys is still possible, but it’s certainly not a sure thing.

Are you good and depressed now? I hope not. Every year new authors manage to somehow cut through this jungle and emerge with money in their pockets. Write the best material you can and know you have as much chance, and as much right, as anybody to make it as an author.

Good luck.

Clayton J. Callahan

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Write What You Know, Right?

We have all have heard it, “Write what you know.” But unless we’re crafting a work of non-fiction can we ever really say we do that? Biographies aside, authors who delve into the realms of fiction often have to write what they DON’T know just to make it interesting. Take me for example, I mostly write science fiction. But have I ever been to space? Do I have a degree in some kind of hard science? Have I ever been abducted by aliens? NO!…or at least, not yet.

So what’s a writer to do? Well, the two things that come to my mind are to extrapolate from your own real-world experiences as much as possible and when that fails, do some research. As for real world extrapolation…that’s the easy part. Characters can be based on people you’ve known, dialog can flow from conversations you’ve actually had, and plots can be drawn from conflicts you have experienced personally. But then there’s that research part, and that can be a little tricky.

The problem is, you often don’t know what you don’t know. Assumptions can be dangerous as they can open you up to a plethora of errors that you will only discover as you read your Amazon reviews after the fact. And like outer space, many subjects are so vasty and wide that a writer may not know where to begin their research in the first place. But as for me, well, I’m lucky.

You see, at age 51, I’ve already worked in many of the fields that authors find relevant to fiction. Things like police dramas, military adventure, and spy novels prove less of a challenge to me simply because I’ve actually been there and done that. And no, I’m not any kind of Rambo or Indiana Jones, I simply needed a job and found that with my skills only certain people would hire me. And besides, my wife says I’m really whiney when I’m unemployed.

I joined the US Navy just out of high school and served in the Persian Gulf during the Iran/Iraq War, but only ever intended military service as a way to pay for college. Later, after my post-college career fell through, I joined the National Guard to make ends meet and found myself in uniform just in time for 9/11 and the Iraq War. Through my National Guard connections, I met a deputy sheriff and was able to start a career in law enforcement (which I’m still in today). And due to my high test scores, the Army decided to train me in Counterintelligence and sent me back to Iraq as an agent. So for me, writing what I know comes easy and the parts I don’t know do not take me too long to research.

So what did I do with all this life experience? Well, after getting asked thousands of questions by writer friends about the military, police, and spy worlds, I decided to write a book on the subject. Armed Professions: A Writer’s Guide is meant as a starting point for writers who have a great idea for a story but have no real-world experience in the field. So far, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments from my fellow writers on the book and I’m happy to have been of help. Now, if someone out there would just write a similar book on space travel I’d appreciate it.

Clayton J. Callahan