Monday, December 20, 2010


What constitutes a successful book? Is it making the New York Times bestseller list? A six-figure advance? How about a contract with a major house? Any contract at all? Self-publishing and hand-selling a few hundred copies? Or will a book that meets none of the above criteria be a success if you’re proud of how it came out, whether anyone else sees it or not?

The “right” answer is probably, “It depends.” What are your standards? Why did you write the book in the first place? If you wrote it to garner a $100,000 advance and it got $10,000, you might think it a failure. Maybe you would have happy with a contract, until you got one and found out that getting a contract is the easy part. What happens next is like watching sausage get made, and you’re the meat.

I’ve thought a lot about this lately. I have a book that has received excellent comments from its beta readers, and sent out an initial solicitation to several agents. All of those who bothered to get back to me passed. (One was temporarily closed to submissions and said I could get back to her later if I was so inclined.)  This was not unexpected. That first batch were chosen as the cream of the crop, agents for well-known writers. Might as well start there and work down, right?

It was time to start on Level Two over a month ago. I’ve written “Agents” into my calendar several times, and found a reason not to do the research each time. Sure, a lot of it is because finding agents (or small publishers) to submit to and preparing the query packages is a pain in the ass, rewarded with a rejection an overwhelming percentage of the time, and I’m basically a lazy person about such things. Bad combination.

There’s more this time. I felt close to a contract a couple of years ago and started paying more attention to what I’d need to do after I got one. It wasn’t pretty. I’m lucky enough to have a full-time job that pays well. I’m not rich, but I’m not sweating out the weekly bill-paying chore, either. I also enjoy the life I have with my family. I wouldn’t mind more of it, but I can’t complain about my work-life balance.

I would if I got a contract. I understand what I’m about to describe aren’t universal truths, but they’re not uncommon, either. First thing the editor will do after signing the contract will be to suggest changes. Don’t take too long if you want your book to stay on the schedule. Send in the edits until he’s happy, then deal with the copy edits. They may have taken three months to get these ready; you have a few weeks—possibly only a few days—to get them back. Then the galleys. Same thing.

Once the book’s in print there’s marketing. This will not only become a likely time sink, but can get expensive, as many publishers have decided their responsibility toward creating a profitable book ends when the product ships to the warehouse. (Kind of depressing to have something you sweated over for a year or more thought of as “product,” too.) Promotion is up to you, to be done in your copious free time between the job that actually supports your family, and being with that family. Oh, and writing the next book. All for a few thousand dollars, which you may well have to spend—and more—as your self-provided promotional “budget.”

I’m from Western Pennsylvania, and we have a word for that: Bullshit.

Several years ago I came up with a concept I call the “Reward to Bullshit Curve.” (See below.

It’s a simple concept, and it applies to just about everything. As reward moves rightward, the amount of bullshit that can be tolerated increases. Obviously “reward” can be other than financial, or the perpetuation of the species would be in jeopardy. For great reward—money, fame, respect, love—a lot of bullshit can be endured. For the kind of money and acclaim someone like me figures to get out of a publishing contract, not so much.

Based on my experience and research, I would be shocked—shocked!­­—to receive an advance worth even as much as a month’s pay. Now a month’s pay is nothing to sneeze at, and I’d jump at it were my employer to offer it to me. (Fat chance there.) One month’s pay is not, however, a life altering sum of money. It’s a home improvement. Paydown on some mortgage principle. An extra conference or two during the year. If that, after I pay the aforementioned promotional expenses.

For that kind of money, the amount of bullshit to be tolerated is minimal. Anyone who thinks it’s a good deal to put up with more BS from writing than I do from my job for maybe less than one-tenth as money needs to think again. What about non-financial rewards? Ego boost? Not so much. I get all of that I need from the usually good reception The Beloved Spouse gives my competed chapters and short stories, and the comments I receive on blogs when answering flash fiction challenges. I’ve seen my work in print, for money, thanks to Todd Robinson and the now unfortunately defunct Thuglit. It was nice, and it felt good the first time I held it, but that’s over now and improvement in anything means moving forward.

This is where I was earlier this year, when I was ready to quit. (Thanks to my good mate Declan Burke for helping to buck me up by soliciting friends to comment here. It was much appreciated and one of the reasons why karma will find Squire Burke a consistent readership.) I came around, thanks to a couple of well-timed flash fiction challenges where my stories received flattering comments. I like writing. I enjoy thinking of the stories, and deciding on the best ways to tell them. I like building the characters and getting them to relate to each other. Hell, I even like editing. Why quit?

The problem is, novels are what I like writing most, and writing them while knowing what is to come if I am lucky enough to get a contract is intimidating. The publishing succubus was draining the life out of writing for me and I hadn’t even got that far. Writing novels I didn’t want to submit was too masturbatory even for me.

I’d said for years that someday, if I’d decided I just wasn’t going to get published, I’d stop writing and pay to have all the books I’d finished released as POD, one a year, but that would be my acknowledgement that I had given up. I was too hasty. Electronic publishing may make it possible for someone like me to be “published” on my own terms.

Some are asking, “Isn’t this a lot like declaring victory and pulling out?” Yes, it is. So what? It will allow me to continue to write, knowing anyone who wants to read my book will be able to download it for an as-yet undetermined price, probably around $2.99. (I may do a free promo, but I’m not giving them all away. My ego’s bigger than that.) I’ll use Crimespace, Facebook, and this blog to promote, and hope others say nice things about me on theirs. Maybe a blog tour, if I’m lucky.

Will I get rich? No. Will more than a handful of people read them? No. Do I care?


I can write the book until I’m satisfied with it. It can be any length I want. It can be half a dozen long short stories, or two novellas. A series or standalone. Tie two series together. Maybe I’ll get an occasional email from a satisfied reader I didn’t know before. I’ll write at my own pace and take the summers off if I feel like it. I’ll be able to accommodate my work, personal, and writing lives in the proportions that work best for me, answering to no more masters than I feel comfortable with.



Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Dana. Very well-thought-out and concise. I would wish you luck, except that on the road you've chosen, you don't really need luck. As you said, you can do literally anything you want at your own pace.

Congratulations on your success.

Dana King said...

Thanks, Mike. I really wasn't sure how this would be perceived. Hell, I really wasn't sure how i felt about it, whether I was just bullshitting myself to give me an excuse to fail and dressing it up. The feedback I've received so far tell me people I respect get it, and that has already made a difference in my attitude.