This was an article I wrote for Confabule.com August 12, 2013. Content for Confabule.com no longer exists; however, I felt this content was valuable. So here you go, WordPress readers, writers, aspirants. Don’t follow their lead. 11 Rookie Mistakes from Authors who Know Better.
Aspiring novelists: read closely. Anyone in the ‘biz for two seconds knows that a career in writing is never just a career of writing.
It’s hashtagging #sucker to every fantasy that the book industry is run by literature-loving mages with dumbo-sized hearts powerful enough to make you a star. (I wish!)
Your task, should you move forward, is to dodge the warlocks. Out there—and in the deadliest places of all— your own thoughts.
Don’t be a #sucker. Read the stories of authors who’ve gone before you, brave enough to share their industry lessons so that you don’t have to walk in their missteps.
1. How I Blew It by Jennifer Spiegel, author of The Freak Chronicles and Love Slave.
My rookie mistakes? Things I’d never want to repeat? I guess my biggest failure—my “regret largesse” (did I just coin that?) is also my victory. I lived in New York City for about three and a half years in the mid-nineties. When I left, I was most definitely in the throes of an I-Am-A-Writer identity crisis. Determined to write, determined to embrace this mysterious identity, feeling a little crazy, I abandoned the city—having failed to actually exist as a writer in the City. Rather than being a writer, I spent most of my time emerging as one.
I suppose we all need this time, but I really kinda blew it.
What I did: I wrote. So that’s good. I saw A.M. Homes read at KGB. I trekked to the Upper West Side to hear Michael Ondaatje. I had a run-in with Random House and Simon & Schuster, which sounds glamorous but amounted to nothing. Most significantly, I lived in the Village. That must have counted for something.
What I did not do: I did not get involved in any writing groups. I did not interact with any writers. I did not submit any fiction to literary journals. I did not read any literary journals. I did not know what was happening in the literary world. I did not keep abreast of technological upheavals. I did, however, read The Bridges of Madison County, and that upset me very much.
So, despite the literary landscape that is New York City, I left—having learned very little about writing.
Though I did kinda have a New York thing going for me. Probably as a result, I wrote Love Slave.
This is my failure, and my victory. Wherever one goes, one needs to see one’s geography as a writer sees it. I am thankful for my own Manhattan experiences. Too bad I didn’t stalk books, listen to writers, party with the literati in page-turning epic ways. I limited my own growth by doing what my very own future protagonist would do: I only saw through shortsighted eyes.
2. Un-Grounded by Christine Butterworth-McDermott, professor of literature and creative writing at Stephen F. Austin University, author of “Woods & Water, Wolves & Women,” and head editor of Gingerbread House Literary Magazine.
Years ago, I took a class with a very talented writer who told me that I needed to add more place to my writing (fiction at the time). I was well read, but young and immature—and I thought, I don’t need to write about place I need to write about people. I convinced myself that she didn’t know what she was talking about and that she didn’t like me. It took me YEARS to realize that she was right and it wasn’t a personal attack. About 15 years after that initial incident, I was teaching my own students and heard myself say, “You need to make sure your poem is grounded,” and it hit me. We could call it an artistic epiphany. I realized the past me was so young and so arrogant that I failed to listen—and that the failing was me not her advice. The moment I realized it, my writing opened up. If I hadn’t been so stupidly sure of myself at 26, I think I would moved farther ahead more quickly. What I should have done was been willing to say, I don’t know it all and this person has more experience than I do. Open-mindedness, whether as a person, student, teacher, or writer is just essential.
3. Poor House Style, by Daniel Casebeer, editor of Pear Noir!
The worst mistake that I ever made with Pear Noir! (and it’s a biggie) was initially not giving people a chance to look at proofs before the journal went to print. I have a line in the publication guidelines that reads something like “manuscripts may be edited to meet house style requirements,” and there were a few times early on when the “house style” was invasive and I ended up upsetting some of my contributors by altering their manuscripts. Even though I thought I was doing them a favor by editing for clarity, as a writer myself, I should have been more sensitive to what I was actually doing.
4. Joining the Military by Ethan Rose, co-author of Rowan of the Wood YA series with Christine Rose.
The stupidest point in my career was when I joined the Navy as a Journalist despite being socially awkward and incredibly shy–not to mention a flaming liberal. That career path ended with my comparison between military and socialist social structures. This was also way back when the Soviet Union still existed.
5. Print Math, by Christopher Dunbar, author of Morrigan’s Brood dark fantasy series with Heather Dunbar.
I think our biggest rookie horror involved our decision to go with a particular print vendor. In the Print-on-Demand (POD) market, several vendors vie for the opportunity to service small presses. The largest ones seem to be Lightning Source (an Ingram company), Text Stream (a Baker and Taylor company), Create Space (an Amazon.com company), and Lulu (allegedly owned by one of the other players, but I have not confirmed it), although there are several smaller book printers, many of which are in China and India.
Because we didn’t have a lot of money to put up front, the zero-down needed for setting up a book made Lulu most appealing. However, we soon realized that to get their money back, Lulu charged exorbitant per-book print costs. Let’s say a 312-page, 6x9x1-inch publisher-grade cream paperback novel has a list price of $19.99. With Lulu, the print cost was around $12.50 per book. With the bookseller discount we set (usually 35% to 55%), our net after print costs and bookseller’s cut was less than a dollar, if sold on-line. Ordering books to sell at events was very expensive, since a container usually held 28 books. In addition, Lulu was not geared towards using industry-standard tools, like Adobe InDesign, which we bought for pBook and eBook publishing. Instead, they accepted Microsoft Word-based templates.
One other major discovery with Lulu involved the poor quality of their end product: the printed books we ordered. More than 25% of books that we received from Lulu arrived damaged in some way, be it from poor cutting, goop on the cover, creased cover and pages, and poor packaging. I will say that Lulu replaced every single book damaged without charge to me (and I got to keep the damaged books for book reviews), but the hassle I had to go through, especially if I had an event that weekend and half my shipment arrived in an unsellable condition, made the experience undesirable.
After being fed up with Lulu, Heather [his co-author and wife] and I researched alternatives. Create space seemed like a good option, but we soon realized the quality of their materials did not hold up to the rigors of outdoor events. We cross-market books from other authors who are friends of ours, and a few of them print through Create Space. During outdoor events (high humidity), and even in indoor events, Create Space covers curled up tightly, whereas the Lulu covers barely showed any signs of warping the page. The paper and cover stock is made from thinner paper, we learned. So, despite Create Space’s lower cost and features interfacing with Amazon.com, we decided to look elsewhere.
We ended up applying with Lightning Source. Yes… we actually had to apply, as if we were seeing a job. We had to demonstrate that we weren’t just some author looking to self-publish; they seemed only to want to deal with actual small presses with multiple books and authors. Well, they accepted us, which cost us nothing, but then we needed to sign all of these contracts, which included international distribution, over-seas printing, sales rights in foreign countries, currency for foreign sales, type of distribution, and many other things. I also learned their one-time and recurring costs. We paid an account setup fee ($75 I think, but as I recall, they reimbursed us if we ordered a certain number of books), a $120 title setup fee (which applied to multiple ISBNs for the same title), and $70 in file upload fees ($35 for the text and $35 for the cover). In addition, we could pay $60 to place the book in their industry catalog. Annually, they charge $12 per title (or ISBN… I don’t recall) for maintaining the electronic copy of the books for pBook and eBook distribution. We also learned that if we needed to update one of the files for any reason, they would charge us a $40 upload fee, which sucks, but it encourages us to get the thing right the first time. That said, I think I have paid the re-upload fee on six separate occasions.
However, despite these fees, the real boon for us is the per-book print costs. Instead of paying $12.50 for the book, it now costs $5.67 if I order it and $5.57 if a bookseller orders it via distribution. This allowed us to reduce the cover price from $19.99 to $15.99, making the book more appealing, both online and at events; and, even after raising the wholesale discount to 55%, we still increased our royalty. Now, book shipments cost half as much as before, and we also have more options for larger volume discounts, rushing orders, and shipping orders. Lightning Source also supports inDesign files. Remarkably, instead of spending $35 on book barcodes from Bowker (myidentifiers.com), I discovered that the cover template for Lightning Source, which is free to download (even if you do not have an account) and includes the barcode.
From time to time, we receive a bad book from Lightning Source, but in those rare situations, they have quickly remedied the issue.
Lulu, I think, is still a good tool to get started… to get one’s feet wet in publishing without a lot of money up front, but if you want to be serious about being an imprint, you need a professional service like Lightning Source or Text Stream, which are both geared towards publishers. Create Space and Lulu seemed tailored to authors self-publishing. The differences between the two is a topic for another discussion.
If anyone would like more information about the different options for POD printing, or other small-press publishing topics, I would be happy to be of service.
6. Ego, by Jason Mashak, author of Salty as a Lip.
Thinking I needed to be prolific (i.e. underestimating brevity).
7. Premature Publishing by Christine Rose, author Publishing & Marketing Realities for the Emerging Author, Rowan of the Wood YA series with Ethan Rose and books under her steampunk alias, O. M. Grey: Avalon Revisited, The Zombies of Mesmer, and Caught in the Cogs.
My most horrific rookie mistake was going with a tiny independent publisher. No advance. They were just getting distribution in place. I had spoken with one of their authors, and he recommended them glowingly. Found out later he was their golden boy, but every other author with them got shafted pretty much down the line. We actually got off easy compared to some who literally lost thousands upon thousands.
I was so excited that a publisher wanted to publish our book, that I looked past all the red flags. The biggest was when she said this: “The more books you buy from us, the more you’ll help us out.”
Understandable, if it had come from someone with integrity.
One of the benefits of going indie is the ability to purchase your own books from them at a discount and sell them yourselves at events, something you can’t do with a NY Big Boy. Still, small indie publishers (all publishers, really) have a hard time balancing print runs and returns, especially in the pre-eBook era, but this person didn’t have integrity, turns out.
The job of a publisher, among many other things, is to front the money for printing the books and have said books available for purchase in as many venues as possible.
My husband and I were on a year-long, intensive tour. In the middle of the tour, we started getting calls from several Barnes & Nobles saying they couldn’t get our books. We called the publisher and said, “They can’t get our books! Why not?” The publisher said we had to buy more books from them so they could get more printed.
I told her we didn’t need any more books, but these bookstores did. She refused to print more.
Fortunately for us, there was a loophole in the contract we signed, and since this publisher hadn’t paid us a single dime that she owed us (ours was the bestselling title of her entire line) nor had she provided a solitary accounting statement, I fought (and won) our rights back from them.
We had to quickly turn it around and publish it ourselves to not lose the hundreds we had already invested in our nationwide tour.
Rookie mistake, indeed.
8. Bird Continuity, by Alexis Glynn Latner, author of Hurricane Moon
My first published story was “Wanderers” in Analog magazine in 1990. The acceptance letter from editor Stanley Schmidt simultaneously sent me over the moon in joy and gave me acute embarrassment. Stan, a proficient bird-watcher, noted that at one point I had birds migrating in the wrong direction for the season of the year!
9. Changing What Worked, by Jeanne Thornton, author of The Dream of Doctor Bantam
The one thing I’d regret is believing things editors and agents told me when they rejected my book. I got told that my book had “hasty mood shifts,” that it was “too sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” that my writing was “shaky,” all kinds of things. And yet the book got on best-of lists, it got nominated for awards, I still get letters from readers. The connection with readers are the things that really matter.
Having worked as an acquiring editor for fiction, I will tell you: often it’s not the case that an editor who writes a rejection letter that hurts is even that displeased with a book. You have a very, very limited amount of money to spend on acquiring books, and you can really only afford to spend it on work you strongly connect with or that you think will make a gazillion bucks for your boss. Most of the time, if a book is actually bad (or if the editor/agent/whomever just sucks and doesn’t have time to read it), you’ll get a form letter. If the book is good–but not quite the right fit—sometimes I would make the mistake of trying to explain why I didn’t choose it, despite really liking it in a lot of ways.
When we’re outside of a Big System like publishing, we tend to vest whoever’s on the inside—agents, editors—with all kinds of discrimination, power, and insight. This is totally a mistake! They just have a different job from us, and the fact that they’re gatekeepers doesn’t make them brilliant judges of whether your dreams and visions have the ability to connect with other people in the world. All they can really say is whether those dreams and visions connect with them, personally—i.e., one person. You don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t connect with your soul; it’s just too much work to dredge up your soul to form characters and plots and such to waste time like that. Your work is too valuable and you’ll find someone with whom you’ll connect. Don’t give people outside of yourself any kind of authority over whether your work is good or not. It’s really easy to hear that but much harder to remember it when you’re submitting work everywhere, and I made the stupid mistake sometimes of trying to change what I did to broaden its appeal. There is no purpose to this action! Avoid it!
10. Tiny World, by W. H. Horner, editor and publisher of Fantasist Enterprises, writer and educator.
I was at an industry mixer, and this young writer I know who has a rather loud personality came into the room and started on this goofball rant that ended with him publicly mocking another guy who was just sitting there minding his own business. After an uncomfortable minute, someone finally went over and interrupted the ribbing to introduce the two of them. Turns out the butt of the jokes was an agent with a respectable agency. The young writer threw his hands up in the air and said, “Well, my career’s over before it began.”
Moral of the story? Publishing is small business, and you never know who might be sitting next to you at a convention.
11. This is America, by Kim Pierson, former writer for Blizzard Entertainment
While working at Dell I wrote a ton of manuals and some of those were how to service our products. So after spending a month working on a new template and html code to help the developers work faster and not harder I was riding on a pretty big high.
Then one day a lawyer from New Jersey started to mass fail his quiz’s he paid good money for. The threats began to flow from him over him sewing us if we did not fix the test so as the writer it was my job to call him.
So I began looking into his tests and after 43 attempts not a single one had a grade above a 30. Now keep in mind these tests were verbatim from the document itself. The question asked In order to remove ___ you must? <choose all that apply>
Remove component A
Remove component B
and so on.
Now you could go to the page and view the item to be removed in the question and it would say, To remove _ you must:
Remove component A
and so on.
This customer managed to get every single one of these questions wrong and often times just selecting the wrong answer.
Keep in mind we were testing their ability to find the information and not memorize how to remove every part from every computer we sold and he was failing it badly.
So I called him. I started simple with the less obvious questions and answers and we talked through why he got the question wrong. In reality I was just trying to judge his mental state because in my mind there was no way with 1000s of people already taken the test and even world wide there was an actual issue. Not to mention the simplicity of it all. After speaking with him for almost 30 minutes I reached the moment of truth, the how on Gods green earth did you ever get almost every single one of these search and find questions wrong?
Delicately I began to ask the question, “So on question 7, and I noticed you got almost all of these questions wrong, but on number 7 it states ‘In order to remove the hard drive on an Optiplex ___ you must? <choose all that apply>’ Now 4 out of the 5 answers were correct; Remove the cover, Remove the heat shield, Remove the securing screws, Remove the power cord, and Remove the front panel. Now you selected Remove the daughter card and this system does not even have a daughter card, is there a reason you selected it?”
He responded in all seriousness and proud, oh so proud “Well it was the best of the incorrect answers I saw and it was very poorly written I might add.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Well this is America and if I wanna remove the hard drive with a crowbar and a jackhammer, I can, so I MUST not do anything.”
I rewrote 1000s of questions and documents to now say “In order to remove the hard drive properly you should—”
Never underestimate your adverbs.
While working at Dell, another story on words:
Motherboards and Daughter cards…. they were not a big fan of this word-choice in male-dominated countries. The people living there were upset they were not called Fatherboards, and one day I had a very very hostile customer contact us about this and give me a major chewing.
After an hour of listening to him rant and give such a passionate speech about the ethics of it being called a Motherboard and how Fathers are ordained by God and the leaders of the world. I gave him the only answer I could think of at the time which was, “Well, sir, the reason it is not called a Fatherboard is this: would you like all of those other cards plugged into you?”
He got very silent. I waited for the ball to drop, but calmly he proceeded, “Very well, so this Motherboard as you call it…”