April 01, 2021 Feature

The Business of Writing

Stephen Terrell

You’ve done it! After years of dreaming about writing a novel or memoir, after all the solitary hours pounding on your keyboard, it’s finally finished.

With a sense of accomplishment, you write “The End.” You sit, looking with pride at your Magnum opus. Then it hits you.

Now what?

This is the point where the art of writing transfigures into the business of writing. Even for lawyers familiar with contracts and business transactions, the transition is seldom smooth. Publishing is filled with its own written and unwritten rules, none of which are intuitive. Knowing the subtle ins and outs of publishing may make the difference in whether agents, editors, and publishers will seriously consider your work. Here’s a primer.

BETA WHATS? FEEDBACK FIRST

Writing briefs, motions, and contracts is far different from the skill needed for a novel. “Forget your lawyering,” says longtime literary agent Cherry Weiner, who has operated the Cherry Weiner Literary Agency since 1977. “Lawyers do a lot of narration, telling not showing. Successful writers show through action and dialog, not expounding on the story.”

Critique groups and test readers, known in publishing circles as beta readers, help through criticism, suggestions, and polishing drafts. While family and friends may be willing, be careful of their praise. “You want someone looking at your writing who will offer objective and knowledgeable feedback,” says Larry Sweazy, two-time winner of the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award.

Latoya Smith, who heads LCS Literary Services, strongly recommends that authors use beta readers or even a paid editor to review a manuscript before submitting it. “It needs to be as polished as possible,” she says.

Weiner agrees. “You send out your novel only when you’ve made it the best you can.”

For professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, there can be an unwillingness to accept criticism that can act as a roadblock to writing success. “Lawyers can be overconfident and less willing to acknowledge their project might have some flaws,” says Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer.

REJECTION REQUIRES PERSISTENCE

Rejection is as much a part of publishing as the printed word. If you submit your work, chances are you’ll be rejected—often.

“Realize it hurts like hell,” Friedman says. “Wallow for five minutes, no more, then get back to work.”

Persistence is a big part of writing success. Sweazy worked day jobs and wrote every night for six years before his first short story was published. He wrote six unpublished novels before his seventh was published.

“I think back to my insurance salesman days,” he recalls. “I made cold calls. Knocked on doors. Got a lot of doors slammed in my face. But it was business, not personal. I took the same approach to writing. Every rejection is one step closer to a yes.”

For Julie Hyzy, two-time winner of the Bouchercon’s coveted Anthony Award, publication came quicker. She had to trudge through only three years of submissions before getting her first short story in print. “I got rejected left and right—a ton of rejections,” she states. “But the one thing I took away from those was that a rejection means you’re pursuing your dream. You won’t get rejections unless you put something out there.”

FINDING AN AGENT

Literary agents are the gateway to traditional publishing. Without an agent, a manuscript won’t find its way to the acquisition editors at any major publishing house.

Both Smith and Weiner agree that meeting agents face to face is best. In nonpandemic times, you can do this at writing conferences, book festivals, and through referrals from authors you meet at those events. You can also find them through web searches, acknowledgements in books, and in the annual Publishers Marketplace, which Weiner refers to as the “publishing bible.”

The most common way of getting an agent’s attention is through a one-page query letter. Writing a query is a skill in itself. Generally, a query starts with the title, genre, word count, and whether the novel is a standalone or part of a series. That’s followed by a one-paragraph summary that doesn’t exceed 150 words, wrapped up by a summary of the author’s writing credentials.

Agents all have their own submission guides, usually available on the agency’s website. Follow these guidelines meticulously. “If the query doesn’t follow my guidelines, it’s an automatic rejection,” Smith says. “I want to see a strong description that reads like the back-cover copy on a book. I have to see it businesswise. Even if I enjoy it, if I can’t think of how I’ll sell it to a publisher, I won’t take the project.”

Agents also have their automatic-rejection criteria, which always includes misspellings and typos. For Weiner, a query that claims “nothing like this has been written” or “this is a bestseller” immediately goes in the trash.

Friedman warns writers to avoid such things as explaining how much effort went into writing the book or how much your family and friends love it.

If you’re successful in landing an agent, don’t stop to admire your success. “Once you’ve given your book to an agent, forget about it and start your next novel,” Weiner says. “Keep it rolling.”

ARE AGENTS WORTH IT?

Agents who accept a novel get paid a standard 15 percent commission. If an agent asks for money up front to look at your book, beware. “Any agent asking for money up front is a big red flag,” Smith said.

Weiner is more direct: “Run. It’s a scam, a con.”

What does an agent do for that 15 percent of your royalties? The short answer is plenty. “The most important thing is getting a publishing contract,” Smith says. Weiner agrees, summarizing an agent’s job as “helping the author get the best book deal possible.”

The agent will submit the manuscript to acquisitions editors to get publishers interested. This includes emails, phone calls, and even personal meetings trying to convince the publisher that the novel and author fit in the publisher’s portfolio. If a publisher is interested, the agent negotiates for advances, royalty rates, and subsidiary rates. The agent then reviews and negotiates the specific contract language.

Both Smith and Weiner are adamant that lawyer-writers shouldn’t try to act as their own lawyer. Weiner has worked with several lawyer-clients and doesn’t mince words. “Let your agent do her job,” she says. “I had three lawyer-clients destroy contracts I’d negotiated.”

The books weren’t published.

After the contract, the agent handles the sales and royalty statements from the publisher, forwarding royalty payments (less the 15 percent commission) if the book has earned out its advance.

Agents also do more. Smith admits she sometimes plays therapist to frustrated writers. “Good agents can also help writers with ideas for future books and nurture and grow a writer’s career,” she said.

THE AGENT MATCH

Selecting an agent is important. If you’re a new writer, resist the temptation to jump into a business relationship with the first agent who expresses interest. “It’s important when choosing an agent to make sure they love your work,” Smith says. “It’s also important that the agent and writer have good chemistry.”

From an author’s perspective, Sweazy believes good agents are invaluable. After a bad early experience with an agent, he met Cherry Weiner at a writers’ conference. She negotiated a two-book deal that made Sweazy a published novelist. Fifteen years and 20 books later, Weiner remains Sweazy’s agent.

Hyzy also had a bad experience with her first agent. “An agent can be extremely helpful,” she says, “but it’s not a guarantee of success.”

If you’re talented and lucky enough to land a book contract, hold off on putting a down payment on that new Bentley or Ferrari. A standard advance for a two-book deal is $5,000–$10,000.

An advance is precisely that—an advance against the royalties the book earns. While writers often seek larger advances, those higher payments can come with a disadvantage. Sweazy and Hyzy both warn of the risk inherent in a larger advance. Authors never have to pay back the advance, but if the book fails to sell enough copies to cover the advance, that can have a significant detrimental impact on the writer’s reputation in the publishing world, dimming career prospects.

WHY NOT SELF-PUBLISH?

Since 2007, the number of books published both as ebooks and in print has skyrocketed, while overall book sales have actually sagged. In 2018, nearly 1.7 million books were self-published in the United States, an increase of 264 percent in five years, according to “The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing” by Steve Piersanti.

This volume of books makes the likelihood of a self-published book selling beyond an author’s circle of family and friends nearly nanoscopic. It happens, but it’s extremely rare. My first novel, Stars Fall, sold more than 4,200 copies. My two subsequent novels sold fewer copies, in part because I didn’t work as hard at promoting them on social media.

Hyzy, who has developed a social media platform of devoted fans, is cautiously exploring possible self-publishing options. “If I were just starting out, I’d go traditional first unless I had a really strong platform of 10,000 or more followers.”

Sweazy is even more negative toward self-publishing. “Self-publishing is a business where I would have to wear too many hats,” he said. “I don’t want to take on another business I have to build from the bottom up. When I write, I don’t want to worry about anything else.”

What does it cost to self-publish a book? The surprising answer is not much. To actually publish a book both in print and ebook through Amazon’s KDP Publishing, there’s no up-front cost except for proofs and author copies you order. None.

If you take the quality of your self-published book seriously, there can be costs. You may want to hire a content editor to edit your story or a line editor to review your novel for those pesky grammatical and typographical errors. Costs vary but can range from about $5 per page for proofreading upwards to $20 per page or more for extensive editing.

KDP offers free standard covers, but you may choose to hire a cover designer; that typically ranges from $250–$600.

SURPRISES AND TIPS

Both Hyzy and Sweazy have found big surprises in the business end of writing. “I’m amazed that most authors don’t see it as a business,” Hyzy says. “They see it as a creative endeavor. If they write a good story, they think it will take care of itself. It won’t.”

Hyzy warns writers to be alert for scams and hoaxes that prey upon novices with big literary dreams. If something is too good to be true, it probably is. She recommends the Writer Beware® blog as a great resource for ferreting out scams before you pay out money.

For Sweazy, the surprise came after his first novel was published. “It doesn’t get easier,” he says. “If anything, it gets harder. Staying for a long writing career is the hard part. After your first book is published, you’re trapped by expectations and the way of the real world. What beginners don’t understand is that they have more possibilities open to them than an experienced writer with a track record. Most new writers don’t realize how precious that is.”

Sweazy also counsels patience. “Don’t be desperate to publish,” he says. “If you are, you’ll make bad business decisions. If you spend time developing your craft, getting published will happen.”

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Stephen Terrell

Stephen Terrell is a retired lawyer based in Muncie, Ind., and a writer. His latest book is Last Train to Stratton.