No matter our age at the time, all authors were young and aspiring at one time. Of those who read this, some fall into this category. In my case, I became a “young author” at age 49. The topic of this blog is to warn “young authors” of the snares and pitfalls related to the craft.
How often has someone said, “Oh, you should write a book about that.” Writing is a demanding craft. Just because a person has an interesting experience or has a story to tell, does not mean that person has skill in writing. There are sites on-line that will accept almost anything an aspiring author submits. Yes, it is good exposure. Some of the stories posted are good and interesting, but a most are simply atrocious. One short story lacked a good plot, was poorly presented and had a dialogue based primarily on profanity and disrespect. If this website is representative of many aspiring writers, it is no wonder editorial assistants dread having to sort through the “slush pile”. There are so few exceptional manuscripts in the slush pile and so many manuscripts that are simply trash.
If you really do believe you have a story, start writing. Keep in mind that the standards of the publishing world are high. Plots and story lines are expected to be attractive to the readers. Spelling and grammar are expected to be near perfect. Writers spend time revising and proofreading. Perhaps you have finished your first manuscript. Do not rush it off to a publisher expecting it to turn into a bestseller. Your mother may like the story, but it is unlikely it will be accepted. Very few first short works are worthy of publication. Most of us need to hone the craft. That means practice, practice, practice. Most of us have many “drawer manuscripts”. These are the manuscripts that never were accepted for publication.
Some aspiring writers say, “Of course my first book will be published, or else would I have wasted my time writing the manuscript?” I am pleased to hear such confidence, but while sending out queries on your first manuscript, start the second. All of these “drawer manuscripts” you produce are valuable practice. Keep writing.
Be aware that as an unknown author, it is very difficult to get your manuscript past the dragons at the gates of traditional publishing houses. No matter how good, your manuscript is simply one of many in the “slush pile”.
A better option is to seek a literary agent to present your work to the traditional publishers. Unfortunately literary agents are in the same position of having overflowing “slush piles”. Remember most of the “slush pile” is substandard manuscripts, and only a few are worthy of the literary agent’s time to represent them. Your manuscript must stand out among the dross.
Literary agents work under a set of ethics that prohibit them from charging a fee, including a reading fee. Agents expect to make their living from a commission of 10 or 15 % of the royalties you receive. The exception is that some literary agents ask you to also reimburse them for copy costs and postage. If you ever have a literary agent offer to represent your book for a fee rather than a commission, drop that agent. He or she is a fraud. Also ignore agents who charge reading fees.
The third option is to query a small press. They are more willing to take chances on manuscripts that are only good without being exceptional. A first time author may also find it difficult to penetrate even the small presses, but authors with one or more published books will have better success there. Most small presses only accept manuscripts they think will sell. Most charge no fee from the author. A few will charge a nominal fee.
Your last option is self publishing. In the past two decades, the number of companies who call themselves self-publisher has grown. A self-publisher will accept almost any manuscript because you are paying them all the costs to produce and market your book. If you simply want to produce a quantity of books to give to a small group of people, it is ideal. It is less ideal for selling books to the masses. Nevertheless, small-publishers can get your book out in the market place. After having numerous editors and literary agents reject my manuscripts with notes saying, “Your manuscript looks good, but it does not meet my interests at the moment.” I finally paid to have my first book published. No it was not a success, but it did get my foot in the door with several small presses that have published my other novels.
There are a few good and ethical self-publishers. They are, essentially, heirs to the vanity presses of the 20th century, but with modern technology they can produce your book more effectively than the old vanity presses. They care less about marketing the book. Their first priority is to collect a fee to cover the publication of the book and the cost of the “free” copies they will ship you. Of course, the more of your books they sell, the better for them. If your book later gets picked up by a traditional publisher, they get more remuneration.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with a businessman who charges for a service or product. Your financial risks occur when they start offering additional services, usually for publicity, websites or marketing. They may ask you to spend thousands of dollars on advertising, promotions or a presentation to movie producers. The deals I have been offered generally are little more than speculative ventures. Sure, I may sell more copies of the book, but how many will I have to sell to pay for the cost of the advertising campaign? They can not guarantee results nor give you an accurate projection of sales. If you need help with publicity, advertising or marketing, look for an established group who are dedicated to that field. Then do your research. Work with a professional whose goal is making you successful.
Do not worry about a publisher or literary agent stealing your manuscript. US copyright law protects you the moment you produce an original work. You can sue anyone who publishes your work without permission. Furthermore, editors, publishers and literary agents are professionals with reputations to protect. They can make more money by representing your book or publishing your book than they can by stealing your manuscript and publishing it as their own. If caught, the results to their career will be disastrous.
You may write on anything original “Copyright 2018 by (your name)”, and you are protected. The hitch is that you must be able to prove it is yours and that you wrote it before anyone else. For that reason, the Library of Congress offers Copyright registration for a small fee. This gives you definitive proof. Of course there are other means of proof. Some writers send a copy of the manuscript to themselves by registered mail. the manuscript is then stored in the sealed envelope until a court of law requires proof of the date when you produced it.
Beware of pickpockets. Many people and organizations are simply looking for your money. They may sell you a product or service without providing what they promised. The self-publisher of my first novel, did a wonderful job producing the book, but I paid a hefty fee. Part of the contract was that they were supposed to help me market my book. After shipping me a crate of beautiful books, they then started charging me for their marketing efforts. In general, I never felt I got good value for the fees I paid.
Publicity agents, marketing consultants and similar people or organizations who promise to increase you sale should be suspect. Also suspect are those who push you for quick decisions and who pester you with frequent phone calls.
I have received a lot of phone calls and e-mails that promised me the moon but at too high a cost with far too little expectation of return. Be very careful to chose those who serve you in a professional way.
Having published 4 novels, I now consider myself a “middle age author”. I still aspire to publish through one of traditional publishers, which means I will have to get a literary agent willing to represent my manuscript. I would like to think my writing has improved enough that my current work in progress will impress someone. In the mean time, I will continue to practice writing. Practice may not make us perfect, but it can improve our skills.
I encourage “young authors” to keep writing. Try some marketing by querying magazines for your articles. Don’t waste a lot of time and money on marketing until you start getting positive responses. Once you have a book length you are proud of, query a few literary agents and small presses. Again, do not invest a lot of time or money, but try several. Often you will get a few sentences of feedback along with the rejection letter. Such feedback is of great value.
Very few authors even get anyone to look at their first manuscript, but keep writing anyway. Persistence pays off.
Reynold Conger is a retired scientist and teacher who writes fiction as a retirement career. To learn about him and his writing, go to ReynoldConger.com. Just to make the website more fun, Reynold has a page with pictures and articles about his bees.