Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Publishing for a Living, Part 3: Realistic Expectations

In December 2010, I decided to follow my dream of being a writer. I knew nothing about how to publish, or about the industry itself. All I had was the ability to write, a dream, and the feeling that I wasn’t happy with where my life currently was.

One year later, I now know how common publishing terms are defined, the general process of traditional publishing, and what expectations are reasonable. So, for anyone else who is trying to become an author, I decided to share. Consider this a short guide for beginners: If you've no idea what the traditional publishing process looks like, welcome to Publishing for a Living 101.

Part 3, Realistic Expectations:

On average, it takes between two and ten years for a manuscript going through traditional publishing to be published after being completed. Some authors get published before; some after.

In recent years, advances have been diminishing. Depending on the publisher and the genre, advances for a first novel may be 2-5K or less. The advance may not arrive all at once. It’s not uncommon for it to be broken up into three parts, such as upon receipt of manuscript, upon receipt of final manuscript after revisions, and upon actual release date.

The average total income for a traditionally published, stand-alone romance novel is usually around $17,000, from the time the book is first published to when it goes out of print. Romance is generally accepted to be one of the more profitable genres. Total income can be much higher or much lower. Here are some assorted articles, surveys, and blogs on what you can earn as an author, both through traditional and self-publishing.

I have not met many published authors whose first manuscript was published. In cases where it was, it typically went through a very large number of revisions first.

Rejection letters are part of the business. Form rejections are common. It is very, very rare for an agent to provide feedback on why a query or a manuscript was rejected.

Most agents get hundreds to thousands of queries a year, and can only represent a few. They probably won’t remember your name.

Submitting a manuscript to a contest can provide professional feedback. In many contests, the judges offer explanations for their scores. A wise writer will accept the feedback and use it to improve her manuscript. Most manuscripts do not win their first contests.

The most successful authors put significant effort into marketing and publicity. They write more than one book.

Most publishers don’t expect to make a profit on an author’s first book. Therefore, they rarely publish authors who do not intend to write more than a single book.

And last but not least:

Being a published author is a career, not a hobby. To be successful, treat it that way. But also keep your day job until after you’re making a living wage from writing.

Did you find any of these surprising? Are there any other publishing-life expectations you’ve found that you think writers ought to know?


  1. Re the ebook market crashing:

    I suspect most amateur authors aren't really 'businesses' that will leave once they fail to make a profit. I think we're mostly hobbyists who would quite like to make money, but are prepared to not.

    Also unlike a business, if you fail to make money you don't go broke (because you haven't put your life savings into it). Nor do you have to stop trading. I self-published electronically for no money, and it seems to be the most common way.

    As for training customers to expect free ebooks: I suspect that's partly true, but it's also true that different 'products' are much more distinct than in other 'industries'. I can get petrol from one garage or another and as far as I'm concerned it's the same petrol. Your ebooks aren't the same as my ebooks. Your moderately explicit paranormal romance with werewolves isn't even the same as my moderately explicit paranormal romance with werewolves, at least to the customers that matter ie fans of moderately explicit paranormal romance with werewolves.

    1. You make some good points. Most writers who are new to the field do enter knowing that there may or may not be any money in it, and know not to get caught paying more than they can afford. The biggest problem comes when writers get caught in scams costing them hundreds or thousands of dollars to get published, and make almost nothing in return (the well-known vanity-press scam). It's unfortunate, but there are a lot of predators out there who will take advantage of the unwary.

      Especially good point about ebooks; the story isn't the same, and the quality isn't the same between different books on the same topic. Your MEPRWW might be great, and sold for $5.99; mine might be a hastily-assembled attempt at milking the market and put up for $0.99 to make me some quick cash, or free to advertise my name. The 'free' price point will have more poorly written books to choose from, while the 'pay to read' higher points will have fewer choices, but a greater percentage will be higher quality. Personally, I think that's what will eventually prevent a crash: readers will start to pay more for the convenience of pre-vetted books, and only look at free books that are recommended by word of mouth.