Ten Tips For New Authors
Copyright 2009 by Jay Wiseman. All rights reserved
I'm often approached for advice by people who are, to one degree or another, writing a book about some aspect of BDSM, poly, or something else. I find that I give pretty much all of them the same basic advice, so I thought I'd take some time to jot down the high points of that advice here.
When I first "got serious" about writing books, I started attending the weekly Tuesday night meetings of the San Francisco Writers' Workshop, which at the time was the oldest free and ongoing writers' workshop in the country. I attended their meetings religiously for more than two years.
We'd show up at the meeting, and those who had recently written something would usually read it aloud to the group and get feedback. Afterwards, we'd go to the local Burger King and talk some more.
I learned a lot from those meetings. Many writers attended, including several who had published with New York publishing companies. One of the things that I learned was that it was not at all uncommon for very good writers to get stuck with very bad author/publisher contracts.
By the time I had finished writing the first edition of SM 101, I knew that having one's manuscript accepted for publication by a New York firm was absolutely not necessarily the golden end of the rainbow that many people (including me) thought it was. In fact, I turned down a publication offer for SM 101 from a publishing company located in NYC and decided instead to self-publish. Looking back, it was one of the smartest decisions I ever made.
Here's the skinny: There are some very good publishing companies, there are some mediocre ones, and there are, trust me, companies that will happily buy an author's highly skilled work for a pittance of what it's worth -- and novice authors seeking their first contract often fall victim to the latter.
So here are a few tips:
One. If possible, talk with authors who have published with the company in question. How do they feel about the company? Would they publish with the company again? Would they recommend the company to new authors? (Note: there is a reason why this tip Tip Number One.)
Two. How many books by the same authors has the company in question published? If a given author, especially a "known" author, has published with a company several times, that's a good sign. (Again, try to talk with the author.) OTOH, if there are a series of one-book deals with authors who then went elsewhere or self-published, then consider that carefully.
Three. Probably the definitive book on evaluating book contracts is "Kirsh's Guide To The Book Contract" by attorney Jonathan Kirsch. This book is essentially MUST reading for somebody facing their first publishing contract.
Four. Another truly important book for authors is "The Self Publishing Manual" by Dan Poynter. I essentially ATE this book when I was starting out. It gives essential knowledge for authors about book design, publishing, marketing, and so forth. ("The Complete Guide to Self Publishing" by Tom and Marilyn Ross is also truly important.) "Writer's Market" -- updated annually, can also be useful, but note point Seven below.
Four-A.For someone who is just starting out, the self-publishing option (not vanity publishing, which is very different) is definitely worth considering. For example, if you have an idea for a BDSM-related book and none of the "good" companies want it, you might actually do reasonably well for yourself by going the self-publishing route -- especially if you already give presentations on this subject.
Five. In book publishing, everything works in terms of a percentage of the cover price -- which is typically somewhere between five to eight times the cost of actually printing the book. The main players are the author, publisher, distributor, bookstore, and customer.
Here's a classic example. A bookstore sells a book to a customer for $10.00. Simplifying things a bit, the bookstore bought that book from the distributor for about $6.00. The distributor bought that book from the publisher for about $4.00. Figuring that it cost the publisher about $2.00 to actually print the book, and $1.00 for administrative overhead of various types (rent, salaries, etc.), that leaves about $1.00 in profit for the publisher. A new author would get maybe 30 to 40 cents of that dollar (in other words, 3% to 4% of the cover price -- "known authors typically get a higher percentage) and the publisher keeps the rest as profit.
In the real world it is, of course, more complex than that, but the above is a basically accurate general picture of how things work.
Six. Learn your craft. Learn how to write good, clean standard English. (Quick! What's the rule for "its" versus "it's"?) Learn how to spell and punctuate. Learn how to construct a paragraph. One of the best bits of writing advice I was ever given was: Never break a rule unknowingly.
Learn how to make your work easy to read. (Have you noted the frequent, short, paragraphs in this essay? They're easier to read than is a huge uninterrupted block of text.)
Here's a quick tip: Read your work out loud. Doing so is very useful for spotting typos, awkward sentences, and so forth.
It goes without saying that you already have your heavily underlined and personally annotated copy of "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White, right? (I used to keep mine in a spot that made it handy for bathroom reading.)
A publisher can tell by reading the very first page of your submission whether or not you have a reasonable working knowledge of your craft (and it's useful to think of writing as a skilled craft). If an author's writing skill is awful, their material is almost always awful as well.
Six-A. A very good way to learn your craft is by starting with small pieces that you have no particular emotional attachment to. As I learned when I was new, it's MUCH easier to face the fact that a 1500-word practice essay needs a complete re-build than it is to face the fact that your 75,000-word "epic work" needs a complete re-build.
If you can write a good non-fiction article, you have a good chance of being able to write a good non-fiction book. Same goes with fiction. If you can write a good short story ("good" in that it's both a great read and demonstrates that you are at least reasonably skilled at the various aspects of short-story writing -- plot, characters, dialogue, viewpoint, conflict, resolution, etc.), then you have a very good chance of being able to write a good novel. If you want to get good at the long, then first get good at the short.
Seven. Guard your wallet. There is a saying that "the only place a professional author signs a check is on the back" and that saying has considerable truth to it. When I started out, I had a saying: "This is not about me giving people money. This is about people giving me money." The moment somebody wants money from you for anything other than stuff such as office or computer supplies, go on high alert. (If you want to both learn your craft and guard your wallet, take some writing courses at your local community college. They often offer excellent value for the money.)
Eight. As to what sorts of manuscripts publishers are looking to acquire (especially in the BDSM/poly world), candidly, the market for fiction, poetry, and memoirs is feast or famine, and almost always famine. (Please spare the publisher your "how I came into leather" story unless they approach you first. Unless you're a celebrity, your ego does NOT want to know how incredibly small the commercial demand for your autobiography is likely to actually be.)
OTOH, a well-written how-to book has a reasonable chance of finding a decent market. (SM 101 sells a remarkably similar number of copies from month to month. It just chugs right along.)
Nine. Especially as regards non-fiction, finding the vacant niche and getting into it early (preferably first) with a really solid book is crucial. For example, right now there are something like six pretty darned good books on rope bondage out there (not to mention good chapters on rope bondage in more general BDSM non-fiction books), so if you wanted to bring out yet another how-to book on rope bondage you'd be swimming upstream against those half a dozen books that are already well known and widely distributed. Hey, you might do OK, but...
OTOH, right now, there doesn't see to be "the definitive book" on suspension bondage out there (although some books touch on it), so a "good" publisher just might be interested in acquiring your (reasonably well written) manuscript on suspension bondage.
A novice non-fiction author is very well advised to find a vacant or nearly-vacant niche. They still exist.
Ten. Approach a publisher intelligently. (It's truly amazing how many would-be authors do not do this.) Many publishing companies have "writer's guidelines" that they will either send you on request and/or are listed on their website. "Writer's Market" is often useful in this regard.
Also, if you've already had some short pieces published and/or given presentations on the subject matter of the book, mention that how and when doing so is appropriate. A "track record" definitely gets attention. Additionally, your short articles and presentations show that you can be hugely helpful in marketing your book after it comes out. (If there's a Dirty Little Secret in book publishing, it's that "author" is a synonym for "book salesman" -- of whatever gender.)
Understand clearly that the most important person in the post-publication marketing of the book will be you, and whether or not you can "meet the public" to assist in your book's promotion is a factor often heavily considered in the publisher's acquire/not-acquire decision regarding your work.
So that's about it. The above make up the high points of what I wish I had been told about twenty years ago.
My best wishes to you regarding your journey into author-land. May you find a "good" publisher.