The Job of Writing, Part 2

This week I finished doing some niggling revisions on my romantic fantasy, Forbidden Talents, the second book in my Vinlander Saga.  (FT is the sequel to Dangerous Talents which is under submission to a New York publisher.  Keep your fingers crossed for me!)  Then I moved on to amping up the sensuality in my contemporary paranormal, Lightbringer.  (Jill Knowles, who writes erotic romance, is helping me with that — thanks Jill!)  I’m also struggling with the question of whether to add to/change/enrich some of the primary character motivations.

This is part of the job of writing.  (Not the fun part).  I have to decide if the book is strong enough as it is, or if it really needs to be rewritten and if this is a good use of my time.  Or would I be better off working on something entirely new?

Time management is a huge part of the business of writing. At the most basic level, we have to get our BIC (butt in chair) on a regular basis.  Then we have to decide how much time we should spend wearing each of our many hats.

I had a great conversation about this recently with Janni Simner, who has commented here before.  Her perspective on time is that it’s better spent writing or revising than doing almost anything else.  She believes that writing and submitting to traditional publishers (large or small) is the best business model.  I’m not as convinced, even though that is the path I’m pursuing at the moment.

Questions we both would like to see answers to:  1)  What percentage of manuscripts submitted to traditional publishers are purchased?  (Quality aside, what are your chances of selling?)  I’ve heard numbers ranging from less than one percent up to four percent (for small presses).  But what is the average?

2)  What percent of self-published manuscripts sell a thousand copies or more?  I recall reading that only three percent sell more than 500 copies, but I couldn’t swear to that.

If the results of #1 are less than the results of #2, or even close, is it still the better business model?  In other words, is it better to keep hoping that you’ll beat the odds and get that New York contract, or is it better to get a small amount of exposure (most likely), and make a very small amount of money by self-publishing?

Of course, in earlier blogs we already determined that money isn’t the only factor to take into account when deciding which publishing model to pursue.  So maybe we should ask a third question:

3)  What percent of authors following either model are satisfied with their experience?  And of the few who have done both, what do they think of each model?

Inquiring minds want to know. . . .

10 Comments

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10 responses to “The Job of Writing, Part 2

  1. There’s another factor we can’t measure: what percentage of books rejected by traditional publishing were actually well-written, and so culled even though they were of potential interest to readers?

    It’s not as simple as, if a larger percentage of self-pubbed books sell more than a set number of copies than are accepted at all by trad publishing, self is the better business model.

    Because if traditional publishing has kept me from publishing a mediocre book at some point, and that pushed me to write a both stronger and more marketable book later, then one can argue it was the better business model for me, too.

    • You’re right, the percentages don’t tell the whole story. How many authors give up after years of trying when their very good manuscripts just don’t meet the right editor at the right time?

      Because if traditional publishing has kept me from publishing a mediocre book at some point, and that pushed me to write a both stronger and more marketable book later, then one can argue it was the better business model for me, too.

      True. But it’s a little like wondering which of an infinite number of realities you’d rather live in. Would you have written Bones of Faerie if you had sold Secret of the Three Treasures right away, instead of shopping it around for five years? Who knows? Maybe one of your alternate selves is enjoying great success writing the Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer series.

      • I always knew I’d write Bones of Faerie eventually, actually, though at a different time it might have found a different home–I’ve thought about that some.

        But if I’d given up on Secret after two years and self-published it? Then it wouldn’t have reached the readers it has–not bestseller levels of readers, but still about 10 times what I believe I could have realistically reached on my own.

        But closer to the point I think isn’t Secret–which I am quite proud of–as other projects that, looking back, I think weren’t well written, and that I’m profoundly glad I didn’t self publish, because it wouldn’t have been to my benefit to have them out there.

        Then, too, one gets back to the order-of-magnitude problem. It one percent of self-published books sell more than 1000 copies (which sounds high to me), and one percent of traditionally submitted books sell at all–well, most of those traditionally published books, save for the ones with the smallest presses, are going to sell far more than 1000 copies.

        And yes, one earns more per copy on a self-pubbed book. But if it’s about money and not about reaching readers, well, there are more efficient ways to make money than any form of writing fiction.

        I keep coming back around to the notion that in most cases–save for those with a niche audience–the only thing self-publishing really gives the writer is the satisfaction of a physical book which they can both hold and can offer to others. Which, if that truly is what one wants–to see a particular work in bound form, to know it’s complete and finished–is not an unworthy goal. But if pressed, it’s not what most writers tend to say they want.

        (There are, of course, many kinds of niche audiences. Readers of a blog who dig the blogger’s web comic, or attendees of a con who’ve been loving a reader’s poetry for years–are as worthy an audience as, say, that of a businessman selling his business books at conferences focused on his profession.)

      • I find nothing to disagree with here except the only thing self-publishing really gives the writer is the satisfaction of a physical book which they can both hold and can offer to others. Isn’t this pretty much the same thing as wanting to be read? Yes, there’s a satisfaction to holding a physical book vs. publishing electronically, but for the moment, most people are still reading physical books.

        The only thing I would add/reiterate is that not all books that don’t sell to NY are unworthy of being seen by the public. (And I’ll agree up front that deciding when your baby is ready is a tricky thing. That’s why every book I’ve read on self-publishing recommends professional editing.) If your book is among the 99% that doesn’t sell to NY, it could instead be in the majority of self-published books that sell between 75 – 300 copies. That’s at least 75 people who can read your work that would not have been able to had you shoved your manuscript back in the electronic drawer.

        Seventy-five isn’t very many. But it’s still more than zero.

        For me it boils down to a question I still haven’t resolved. Do I hold out forever, hoping that when I finally do sell to New York that they want my “back-list,” or do I decide on a deadline for my manuscripts, a certain number of traditional submissions, and then self-publish them at some point? Each of these options fulfills different, conflicting, goals.

      • The only thing I would add/reiterate is that not all books that don’t sell to NY are unworthy of being seen by the public.

        I’ve been thinking about this, and all the arguments that traditional publication is no real indicator of quality (not only here; in general), and I think what it comes down to is this: Not every book above a certain level of quality sells to a traditional publisher. But nearly every book published by a traditional publisher is above a certain level of quality. Even those books by traditional publishers I wind up personally disliking have a certain base level of quality that puts them way above what I’ve seen any time I’ve either listened to random slushpile selections or read contest entries. So traditional publication actually is a filter for quality: it doesn’t catch everything, but it does rule out nearly everything that’s unreadable.

        For a reader, this is huge. If I pick up a book in a bookstore, it may not be to my taste, but I know it’s going to be above a certain basic level 99 times out of 100. But when I pick up a self-published book at a conference, say–I don’t know that–because the number of even base-level readable books among self-published books isn’t really that much higher than the number to be found in the slush or a writing contest, at least in my experience. There are gems there, I’m sure, but the gem-to-not-gem ratio is far lower than I think many considering self-publishing quite understand, or else dismiss.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that while quality isn’t the whole story in discussions of traditional versus self-publishing, it’s one that can’t be ignored, either, and too often it’s quickly dismissed.

        A bookseller I know recently talked online about a book from a major publisher that had, through the paper and ink choices the publisher made, an appearance that looked self-published. She said her customers kept asking her, “Is this self-published?” and wanted to know before they considered the book. I think this isn’t uncommon.

        75 readers is better than no readers, sure … but do you even really need to go to the trouble of binding a story in a book to find 75 readers?

        Do I hold out forever, hoping that when I finally do sell to New York that they want my “back-list,” or do I decide on a deadline for my manuscripts, a certain number of traditional submissions, and then self-publish them at some point?

        I think the term “hold out,” in itself, is actually a little loaded. Because it implies, in its way, that selling to New York is a sort of long-shot dream that’s possible, but not likely. It’s not “holding out” to make the decision to pursue professional publication. It’s deciding on a business strategy after considering all the variables involved.

        It’s especially not “holding out” if one is working, as we all are, to make each book better than the last. Because while decent books do fail to sell, if we’re improving with each book, the odds improve with each book.

        It seems to me that so often, the decision to self-publish is not so much a business decision (though it can be, especially in niche markets where there’s a clear marketing strategy), so much as a decision based in a sort of fundamental impatience: a writer deciding they “can’t” wait some length of time. (In most cases I’ve encountered, that too-long period of time is well under a decade–often under five years and sometimes as little as two–even though we wouldn’t question that length of time in many other fields, especially if you count the years of education and/or training required to practice.)

      • You make some very good points. I agree, nearly every book published by a traditional publisher is above a certain level of quality. No doubt about it, most self-published books are pretty poor. I’m not dismissing that. Many writers who might otherwise consider self-publishing won’t because of the aroma that surrounds self-publishing. It would be nice if all self-published books were judged on their own merits, rather than being assumed to be bad, but this is the real world and that’s not likely to happen as long as so many self-pubbed books leave much to be desired. It helps if a book has a good cover and good interior formatting. Then, whether traditionally or self-published, a reader will pick up the book if they like the cover and/or title, read the back cover copy, and if they like that, read the first page. Every book has several opportunities to either hook a reader or lose them.

        I think the term “hold out,” in itself, is actually a little loaded. Because it implies, in its way, that selling to New York is a sort of long-shot dream that’s possible, but not likely.

        “Hold out forever” is a loaded expression, but it accurately reflects the emotions of some authors at certain times regardless of whether they’r pursuing “professional” publication. And in truth, I don’t think that most who start writing and submitting do it as a business strategy after considering all the variables involved. I think the dream comes first, the business strategy develops later.

        On Jim Butcher’s website he says three out of a thousand fiction writers seeking publication will succeed, and out of those, ten percent will be able to make a living at it. That sounds like long odds to me. (I do like his comparison of publishing to being chased by a bear: You don’t have to out-run the bear, you just have to out-run your companions/competitors.)

        I’m okay with long odds. Both traditional publishing and self-publishing offer them in differing forms. The thing an author must do is understand her goals so she can plan her business strategy so she can best achieve them.

      • But the odds are not equally long in both self- and traditional- publishing. They truly aren’t. That’s what it comes down to: Not all hard things are equally hard and have equally low chances of success.

        Especially when you consider that out of those 1000 writers who are submitting to New York, 95% are writing things that are pretty clearly awful. We’re not competing with everyone who submits to New York, only those whose work is above a certain level.

        And it’s not a matter of the “aroma” of self-publishing, either. It’s a matter of the marketing challenge self-publishing presents. Basically, you have to make your work jump out of the slush for every single reader who encounters it.

        And in truth, I don’t think that most who start writing and submitting do it as a business strategy after considering all the variables involved. I think the dream comes first, the business strategy develops later.

        The dream informs the writing, always. But once the submitting, which is a separate thing, begins, one is engaging in a business strategy. I don’t think it’s that unusual to be aware of this. We do our research, we choose a course, and as writers we’re also being business people from the start of the submitting process. My strategy has evolved, but it was always there in some form.

        But now I think it’s time for me to back out of this argument, because I think we’ve probably pretty much circled around to where we started. 🙂

      • Thanks for your contributions! You’ve given me (and my readers) much to think about.

  2. Benita

    Some of this focus on numbers seem to miss the point, from my perspective.

    Let’s say you were trying to get a job at a specific company. You learn that they only interview 1 of every 100 applicants. Or gee, maybe it’s FOUR of every 100. Either way, it is an incredibly small number. If you REALLY REALLY want to work at THAT company, it seems more relevant to ask, what do those 1 (or 4) applicants have in common? So for you, it seems relevant to ask, what do accepted manuscripts have in common, and how can I get me some of that? Does it TRULY matter how many manuscripts they accept? And if you found that out, then wouldn’t you need to know how many in your genre, and how many from authors of your gender, and of your ethnicity, and from your state, and on and on and on…

    And for self-publishing, I could just whip up a really, really bad novel, and it would be no guarantee that I would sell the “average” number of copies. Likewise, a really fabulous book wouldn’t NECESSARILY sell any more than average.

    It seems reasonable to ask “Can I AFFORD to self publish?” Just like you might ask if you can afford a new car, a second home, a pair of diamond earrings….and included in that deliberation is whether the joy involved is worth the expenditure. And if it IS worth the money, and you can truly afford it without compromising the other things you enjoy (whether that is a vacation or keeping a roof over your head or whatever), then does THAT answer the question? Do you really need to go on to ask “What is the liklihood I will sell enough copies to make back the money I spend self-publishing?”

    It strikes me that you are dithering about in analysis, looking for some “sign from God” that one path or the other is THE CORRECT PATH, whereas life, including trying to get a novel published AND sold, offers no guarantees. Sometimes you just have to CHOOSE and set a deadline to review that decision.

    That could be traditional publishing with a deadline of 5 years if you still haven’t sold a novel. Or it could be self-publishing, with an analysis of 1st book sales before considering self-publishing the 2nd. But if you stand there just staring at the buffet, you never will get to taste ANY of the desserts!

    • You make some interesting points. However, I think that numbers are relevant when discussing business decisions. (Your question about whether you can AFFORD to self publish is a numbers question, after all.) Your underlying assumption about self-publishing though, is that once you choose it, you’re publishing as a hobby, if you think that breaking even with your sales is unimportant. That may be the case for some people, but not for all. Finding enjoyment in the process is important, I agree, whichever path you choose, because there are no guarantees in either traditional or self-publishing.

      So for you, it seems relevant to ask, what do accepted manuscripts have in common, and how can I get me some of that?

      Well, um, yes. Pretty much every aspiring writer considers this. As much as we try to follow the advice that we should what we’re passionate about, because it will come out in our writing, when we don’t sell we generally ask ourselves how our writing could be improved. And when we continue not to sell multiple manuscripts, we try to figure out if there is something essential that is missing, or something extraneous we should remove from our stories. We read books and go to workshops and join critique groups to educate ourselves. While it’s good to be aware of what’s going on in the market, it’s usually not a good idea to “write to the market” because trends can vanish before you finish a manuscript. And certainly before it gets into print.

      Personally, I don’t think God cares whether I self-publish or continue submitting to New York. Fifty years from now I don’t think anyone else will care, either. I currently have every submittable novel submitted, and I’m revising another to make it more salable (I hope.)

      But if you stand there just staring at the buffet, you never will get to taste ANY of the desserts!

      You can also never taste dessert if you choose to only submit to NY and never sell. But deciding on a deadline, when you know that it took Stephen King X number of years to sell, and he almost quit but his wife pulled Carrie out of the trash, is not so easy.

      I agree, it’s important to have a plan. I have one. And it’s currently under revision.

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