The Path to Publishing, Part 4: Time in Service

(Welcome to the latest installment of The Path to Publishing, a series on starting a small press aimed either at the writer who wants to improve their stature or the editor who wants to run an independent publishing house. If you missed any of the prior posts, you can find them here.)

by Gideon Marcus

When I started this series, it was with the assumption that my audience would already be experienced writers. Starting a small press is definitely not what you do near the start of your writing career. I was lulled by the activity of the #writingcommunity — with all the talk of querying and #pitmad and submissions; it seemed like there were tens of of thousands of folks right on the edge of success who just needed that break to make it.

I’ve since befriended many folks in this community and I’ve come to a startling realization:

Most of you are not ready to publish a book, much less start a small press to market and distribute it.

This is how the timeline usually goes:

  • 1) Aspiring writer with stars in their eyes wants to give up their day job and Make It as an author.
  • 2) They pour their heart into a novel, often during NaNo because that’s What You Do.
  • 3a) They throw it up on Amazon, often unedited (sometimes because they don’t feel the need, often because they can’t find a good editor)and/or
  • 3b) They submit half-baked queries to agents/post half-baked #pitmad tweets.With the result that
  • 4a) They sell three copies of their books to family membersand/or
  • 4b) Get no answer to their queries (never mind an agent actually writing back).
  • 5) Hopes dashed, they give up. The End.

Is this you? I’m glad you’re here. Was this you? You’re probably nodding your head sagely, perhaps wincing in empathy.

So if the above timeline is a recipe for failure, what is the recipe for success?

You Have to Pay Your Dues

Our 16-year olddaughter is a wunderkind. She is an accomplished illustrator, a talented singer/songwriter, a fine dancer, and a good human being. Her friends often exclaim, “You’re so talented. It’s not fair.”

NONE of those things happened without years and years of effort. All skills take time and sweat to develop. Sure, some folks have advantages: wealth, perfect pitch, loving families, an innate sense of rhythm. But no one develops into a good artist, a talented singer, or a compelling writer without a whole lot of effort.

Take me, for example. I can whip out a non-fiction essay in no time. Plots fly out of my head endlessly. If I sit down at the keyboard, I’ll have my 500 word daily limit for fiction done in 30-60 minutes.

I’m so talented, it’s not fair, right?

I’ve been a published nonfiction author for 15 years, and I’ve been putting out a dozen articles a month for seven. It’s muscle memory now, but it didn’t start that way. I look at the articles I wrote for the newspaper near the start of my career, and I cringe (though they were good enough; people liked them and I got paid). Heck, I go back over old Journey articles and I cringe! Luckily, I can go back and edit those.

As for fiction, I’ve been writing science fiction since I was 14. I co-wrote my first fantasy novel when I was 22…and garnered an impressive number of rejections. I started writing short stories in earnest in 2015, and I didn’t get published until 2018, didn’t make my first pro-rates magazine sale until 2020. Five years.

Five years of first getting form rejections, then custom rejections, then making it onto the short list, and finally getting into print.

I’ve got lots of friends, very good writers, who spent the better part of a decade trying to get into Fantasy and Science Fiction before finally succeeding. I still haven’t and may never — I’ve since moved away from magazine sales now that I have my own press.

As for my success with Journey Press, that didn’t come out of nowhere. It started with Galactic Journey, which started from zero. The first year and a half of its existence, I was happy to get 30 hits in a day. It took consistency, persistence, and the quality of writing I’d learned from eight years as a professional nonfiction writer to grow the Journey into a thrice Hugo-nominated outlet. Getting recognition from some major names helped. (James Davis Nicoll and Charlie Jane Anders: thanks, you two. I won’t ever forget it.) But that recognition wouldn’t have come, like a lightning bolt from the blue, if I hadn’t been creating something they felt was worth their time.

If you want to become a concert pianist, you need to play a lot of scales. If you want to become a professional artist, you need to draw a lot of circles. And the greatest writers all say the same thing: if you want to be a writer, you have to write a lot of stories. So if you’re trying to hawk your very first novel, which also happens to be the first thing you’ve ever really written, and you haven’t paid your dues…

Well, get ready for three sales on Amazon and/or a lot of radio silence from agents.

You need an Editor

I’ve written thousands and thousands of pieces in my life. I compose almost as effortlessly as breathing.

I always have an editor go over my work. Sometimes several editors. You should too.

Here’s why:

When you have an audience of one, you know exactly where your characters are, their motivations, their traits. You’ve got a clear idea of the universe. You know what you’re trying to say. Until someone else reviews what you’ve written, you don’t know if someone else knows what you’re trying to say.

So for anything you want to publish, and especially stuff you expect to get paid for, you need an editor. And not just any editor. You need, at the very least, an experienced writer to bounce your ideas off of. Otherwise, the best you’ll get out of them is a vague, “I liked it!” or a “It needs something, but I don’t know what.”

It may be tough finding the editor that works for you, someone who 1) you can work with, 2) offers good advice, and 3) is affordable. I’m still reeling from the loss of one of my favorite editors, who is coping with a chronic illness. But when you find the right editor, your work will ascend to the next level.

Finding the experienced editor (or several) is the first hurdle. The second is your ego.

No one likes to be told that their magnum opus doesn’t work. No one likes to spend months pouring themselves onto a page only to have to rewrite the whole damned thing.

Let me tell you something: when starting out, you will spend more of your life in editing than writing. If that bugs you, you’re in the wrong business.

Sure, eventually you’ll get good enough that you can work out a lot of your bugs prior to the editing process, but that first book? It’ll go through the wringer.

Kitra, for example, essentially went through four drafts until it was good enough for the public. It’s doing pretty well. Folks like it. If I’d released any of the earlier drafts?

Three sales on Amazon.

Setting expectations

Most authors don’t reveal their sales numbers, either because they don’t know them (somehow, publishing houses always seem to be behind in their reporting and opaque about things) or because they don’t want to share. Those that do share their numbers skew expectations — 30,000 sales in a year for a bad book? Wow! This Amazon thing really works!

I’ll happily share my numbers. Before COVID, 200 sales a month of a title was standard. This summer, I was lucky if I sold 70, though things are on the upswing again.

200 sales a month is both a respectable number (the average sales for a book is 250 for its lifetime) and a tiny number (compared to 30,000 per year). That it’s at all respectable is the result of years of working to produce a good product and months of work promoting said product. That it’s tiny reflects that I’m at the beginning of my professional career. I have confidence that if I stick with it, once the crisis fades I’ll be back into happy numbers now that I’ve built my bookstore network and my reputation, but it’s a slog right now.

So take my advice for what it’s worth. I’m not wildly successful, but I have gotten some success. Perhaps my being at this intermediate stage makes my advice particularly relevant to you, who is presumably earlier on in the process. Or perhaps you only want to take the advice of a superstar. Up to you; I suspect they will have similar things to say, if they remember this stage in their development.

What’s Next

This ended up being a lot of tough love. Let me soften the blow a little bit. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already completed something, even if it’s not ready for prime time. Congratulations — most people don’t even get that far. If I had a dollar for every person who told me they had a story they wanted to tell if they could just find the time, I wouldn’t need to write for a living.

I’m not done with my suggestions, not by a long shot, but I don’t want this article to get too long, I will save talking about the difficulty of making even an objectively good book a success for next week. Suffice it to say for now that it’s a rough gantlet you’ll have to run, and you probably won’t make it, at least not out of the gate. I’ll be discussing that process in the next post.

But before you even think about the query or self-publishing (and definitely the small press!) options, you need to have a good book. That takes time in service, and it takes editing.

You can do it. Just know what you’re getting into.

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