If you’re a writer, you probably don’t (or shouldn’t) think of yourself as average—because to write well is an extraordinary thing. If you’re not popularly read yet, well, you can consider Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his lifetime. Or perhaps you’re akin to California writers John Fante or Phillip K. Dick, writers whose genius was affirmed after they died.
However, if you want to be published and recognized now, you might observe the reality of the book business and work up from there. Publishing has changed dramatically over the last decade with the rise of self-publishing. Who reviews books and how books are promoted have changed. Here are a few things to consider. First, we’ll start with money.
1) A handful of unknown authors have become superstars from self-publishing. This is both about talent and luck—luck akin to the lottery. If you want to learn how this happened, click here on stories of Hugh Howie and Darcie Chan. For the most part, though, consider that when you start out, you might make, if you’re talented, a few hundred to several hundred dollars per year. Will you write even if there are not a lot of financial rewards?
A survey by Digital Book World shows the reality: hybrid authors (who are both traditionally published and self-published) earn the most money, with a median income between $7,500 and $9,999 a year, followed by traditionally published authors ($3,000–$4,999), and self-published (indie) authors ($500–$999).
Most indies I know make much more than this, which I'll get to at the end. It's about having a platform. These statistics are the median, which includes those who quickly drop out.
Many authors, self-published or otherwise, feel they’ve made it if they’re in bookstores. Bookstores, however, have to compete against eBooks and online bookstores. It's hard to get into bookstores--and do you really want it?
2) Bookstores make their money on bestsellers, naturally, and most authors are not best-selling. Therefore, if your book is stocked, it’s often NOT with the cover facing but with the spine facing. How often do you find new authors from just seeing the spine? Books that are displayed spine only tend not to sell.
3) Bookstores can get their money back from publishers by returning books that don’t sell. Bookstores use specialized software to track every title. Books that don’t sell in 30 days are often returned. Thus, your books are likely to be returned—which is expensive. There goes some of your royalties.
4) Books that DO sell at bookstores are often not automatically reordered unless a large number have been sold. Thus, the shelf life of a new book is not very long—perhaps a couple of months in total—unless you’re a well-known author.
5) Barnes and Noble closed 223 stores last year. They have 640 left. For the last four years, people have been predicting the chain’s demise. They keep trying new things, including selling more than books, but you have to ask yourself WHY do you go to a bookstore? I have two reasons: to pick up a copy of a well-known book, such as one I might be teaching, or to discover a new title or author. I tend to go to independent bookstores for the latter, as the employees often have special shelves for their recommendations. As a chain, I like Barnes and Noble. I’ve read in some. I don’t want to see them go away. For mid-list books, however, especially older ones, I’m forced to buy online.
Literary agents have changed, too. Gone are the days where an agent and publisher groom a new writer when they see talent. That’s how Hemingway and Fitzgerald started. Agents now get ten percent of what their authors make, so they need to find what they think will be popular authors. If your book ideas don’t sound commercial, don’t expect agents will even call or write back. Here are the new realities:
6) Editing. Publishers, trying to keep costs down, look for amazing stories that need little editing. Both agents and editors look for stories that are ready or nearly ready to be published. Thus, you the writer need to consider hiring a professional editor to have your book in top shape. As a writer, you may be spending a few thousand dollars on your book in hopes of recouping it. You need great editing whether you're self-publishing or sending it to an agent.
7) Agents. Literary agents are more difficult than ever to find because they’re swamped with queries, and the clients they have now are often more-and-more difficult to place. My last agent, Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich in New York, believed in me. He sent Love at Absolute Zero to more than forty editors, and three of them sent him letters that went something like “I loved Meeks’s novel—very funny. I stayed up much of the night and laughed often out loud. He’s talented. However, the marketing department said no, that it’s too hard to market a book about science and love.”
In the end, I published it myself and found, yes, it is hard to market, but it won awards and found its niche. In short, you’re more likely to have correspondence with a major celebrity than with an agent. Still, I’m convinced a brilliant query letter about a brilliant book will find an agent. As the publisher of a handful of authors—I have a very small press—I’ve come to a few realizations:
8) Printed books can be a drain. That’s because of my third point, above, that the books are probably shown spine out. How many of the 640 Barnes and Noble and over two thousand independent bookstores can you get to and make sure your book is bought and displayed well? The more awards and better the reviews a book gets, the more I sell to bookstores—and the more returns I get. One of my author’s books received a Los Angeles Book Festival Award, and the returns were so high a few months later, I’m in the red on it still nearly a year later. I’ve now made my books non-returnable, and bookstores are not buying. They won’t if they can’t return it.
9) Bookscan. As I was looking for a new agent, one wrote me immediately with a printout from Bookscan, the company that tracks sales of printed books. These days, most of my sales are in eBooks, because, as I said above, printed books are a drain. Still, I sell some printed books. Publishers and agents want to see high numbers from Bookscan. Thus, I’ve realized, if you as a self-published author do not offer a printed version of your book with a scanable ISBN number, then as far as a publisher and agent are concerned, your book is unpublished—which is good if you want at some point to be published by a major publisher. If that doesn’t concern you, then Createspace, an Amazon company, makes it easy to have printed books.
10) Your platform. Probably the best thing you can do if you’re marketing yourself is to not expect a runaway hit. Rather, look for ways to inch ahead. It’s about volume and making a small percentage on volume. The idea is to find your fans and potential readers and create a database of them. When you have a new book, you can write to them directly.
The person best known for this is English author Mark Dawson, who essentially discovered that old-fashioned advertising in a high-tech way gets you there. A Forbes article (click on his name above or here) details how he earns nearly a half million dollars a year from Amazon alone. Basically, he writes a really good novel, has it well-edited and proofed, and then using mostly Facebook ads, aims it at the right audience. While his advertising costs add up after a while, so does his income. Some of his critics think it’s lame. If you have to spend $10,000 to bring in $12,000 of income, you only clear $2,000. Now add a zero to each number and understand his approach.
If you’re curious about this, he offers three free lessons in what he does. If you need more hand-holding, he offers more for a nominal price. I’ve tried the free three lessons and am inspired. (Click on “three free lessons” above.) I don’t make anything from this—it’s just my own free advice.
The main thing to understand in all this is today’s writer also needs to be a promoter and marketer.
Best to you this year.
Since May 2014, I’ve been working on a novel, The Chords of War, mostly set in the Iraq War, collaborating with my former student Samuel Gonzalez, Jr., who served in Iraq. The novel is inspired by his time there as well as his years as a rock musician.
An interesting thing happened with this manuscript, which we’re still working on—nearly done. Producer Ed Pressman (American Psycho, Wall Street) optioned Sam’s life rights and tapped Sam to direct the screenplay now being written. Pressman also optioned my novel. This may sound more golden than it is. Sam or I won’t see any money until the financing is secured, and the film goes into production. Still, I hope the option will make publishing easier. I’m looking for a new agent.
We’re on the sixth draft. What makes working with Sam, a director, so interesting is Sam has a powerful visual sense and a natural touch for drama. If you never saw the short film he made of my mystery, A Death in Vegas, click here.
For those of you following the books I publish, you might say I’m eclectic. Some writers choose a genre and stick with it. From a marketing standpoint, that makes sense, particularly if the books are in a series. As a reader, if you want a Michael Connelly novel, you’ll buy a taut police procedural with Detective Harry Bosch or his Lincoln lawyer, Mickey Haller. If you’re into YA dystopia, you may read Suzanne Collins and her Hunger Games series.
In contrast, I grew up reading whatever grabbed my interest, and I’ve followed suit in my writing. In high school, I worked in our paperback book store at lunch, and it was there I discovered the fiction and poetry of Richard Brautigan and the science fiction of Ray Bradbury. In English classes, we read Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which seemed eclectic to me. In college, I read John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, and after college, I explored more and found such great writers as Margaret Atwood, Janet Fitch, Alice Walker, and Nick Hornby.
I started writing short stories because that’s what one did in creative writing classes. It was there I learned my voice came with humor. Once I discovered I didn’t have to cut out the funny stuff, I became more comfortable with my voice. After I published a number of short stories, I collected them in The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and then Months and Seasons.
My first agent didn’t think there was any money in short fiction and pushed me onto my first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, inspired by my years at the University of Denver and beyond. Then came Love at Absolute Zero after novelist Caroline Leavitt thought my real story of zipping off to Denmark for love in college was hilarious. I updated it by making it about a physics professor in the present instead of a college kid in the seventies. It would let me slip in what I knew about teaching. I also saw a weird connection between the laws of physics and the laws of love.
My next two novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas, were crime stories with average guys forced into extraordinary situations. I wanted to write something not based on my life, and a thriller or mystery would also help me explore form. My idea was to write a page-turner. There’s a lot to learn about storytelling when you want your reader not to put the book down. I enjoyed writing them a lot—but not enough to make either into a series.
That’s because several forces all came together. As a writer, I’ve always kept my eyes and ears open; the universe is trying to tell me something. As a reader, I fell in awe with the work of Tim O’Brien, particularly his fiction in The Things They Carried. I’d been in the last year of the draft for Vietnam, and I wondered how my life might have been different if my birthdate showed up as one of the first ten ping pong balls in the lottery instead of #229.
Reading O’Brien gave me a clue. His writing felt honest, truthful, and emotional. A friend then gave me The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, set in the Iraq War. I liked it so much, I used it in an English class. Our class discussions had been fabulous. Just after that, I happened to meet Sam Gonzalez for lunch, and he told me of his experiences fighting in Iraq. He asked if I’d consider writing a novel about it. I liked the idea a lot, so we’ve collaborated.
What makes this book different from my previous ones is I’m not taking inspiration from my life but from another’s, Sam’s. As a film director, Sam isn’t wedded to what happened to him exactly but more toward what he felt. In O’Brien’s story “Good Form,” O’Brien speaks of happening-truth and story-truth, and how getting the sense of what it felt like versus who really did what is more important.
That’s what we’re aiming for in this book—the truth of what it felt like to be there from the standpoint of young men and women who joined because of the hype, the patriotism, or even just a need for a job or to get away. Iraq was not Vietnam. It’s more chilling because America should have learned from Vietnam, but our politicians threw us into Iraq and Afghanistan more because we had the machinery for it. Those who volunteered did not necessarily know any of the politics, but they had to live with it and experience war. Even if you don’t get injured, war can play with your head.
I started writing the book in the third person, but Sam rightly felt the first person gave it more presence. Only the prologue remains in the third person. Our protagonist, Max Rivera, played rock before joining the Army, and even if he doesn’t know it, it’s his music that keeps him grounded, especially through the worst of times. Through his friendships and affairs (women are in his platoon), he learns more than he signed up for.
Sam understands the power of imagery, and as he reads what I write, he loves the lyricism I’ve delivered and even pushes for more. “More poetry” is his refrain. For me, every day on the book feels important. The word entertaining isn’t what drives me, but You’ve got to read this does.
I’ve written far more scenes than we’ve used. In fact, it’s these later drafts where we’ve realized we need to bring some things back. It’s built with two storylines: before the war, and during the war.
This is all to say, this book, as with my earlier ones, has come from trying things out, experimenting, moving things around, taking things out, putting things back, pushing for the right tone and similes. I don’t work with a formula but with what feels right and truthful. I’m excited by it. It’s as if the lens of my life has focused on this particular book. I’d like to say writing the fifth book was so much easier than the others—it hasn’t been—but it’s still what I love to do. I feel new each book out.
What happens from here, I’ll let you know.
(The photo at the top is of Samuel Gonzalez, Jr.)
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.