Advice for Writers

The Business, Part 1: Introduction

Publishing is a business. Writing may be art, but publishing, when all is said and done, comes down to dollars. Keep that in mind.
I say this because of the volume of mail I receive from unpublished writers who believe that “having a good story,” is enough to guarantee success.

It’s not. I hate to say it, I wish it wasn’t true, but it’s not. Some of the best novels I’ve ever read never hit the best-seller list, then faded away before sadly going out of print. There are also some poorly written novels that do become best-sellers. Writing a great novel is the most important thing you can do to become a success, but sometimes it’s not enough these days.
Publishing has changed over the years. Charles Dickens was primarily a serial writer whose work appeared in magazines. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald worked with one of the great editors of all time (Max Perkins) and received a great deal of personal attention from their publishing houses, in addition to building their market through short stories. In the 1970s, the paperback market was much larger than it is now, providing a vehicle for young writers to build an audience (Stephen King, Nelson DeMille, Danielle Steel, Peter Benchley—- the paperback market was huge in their careers). Now, hardcover novels seem to be critical (for example, The Notebook, The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, and Absolute Power by David Baldacci were all bestsellers in hardcover as first novels).

Because publishing is becoming more business-oriented each day, with even greater scrutiny of the bottom line, it’s harder to break out than ever. Publishers are generally less willing to take big chances in “growing” an author. They want books that will sell, and usually sell right away. If they don’t think yours will sell, odds are, they won’t take a chance on it. Why? A major reason is because authors in general have become more prolific. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner have fewer published novels combined than any number of contemporary novelists—Roberts, King, Koontz, Steel, etc.

Why does this matter? Suppose a person reads about eight books a year. Odds are, the person also has a list of contemporary authors in their mind who are already favorites. Then there are the backup authors who they sometimes read. Then there are those authors whom they’ve heard of over the years who they might be willing to try out if the circumstances are right (at a rack in the airport, for instance). For most people, that’s coming up on eight books already. So why would they take a chance on someone new?
With that in mind, as a writer, you have to understand business factors that are important to the editors making the decision on whether or not to buy your novel: What’s the genre? What successful books are similar to the one you’ve written? Why is yours better? What’s the market for your novel? How can we get the word out to that market? And most importantly, will this book be recommended to others?

It’s important to understand how the business works and the more knowledge you acquire the better. Again, spend a great deal of time in the Writing/Publishing section of the bookstore. The more you begin to think of this as not only as an art but also as a business, the more likely you’ll be to succeed.

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