Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Newbie Authors: Do your damn homework!

So there's this Publishers Behaving Badly, uh, thing going around the twitter-verse today, all about an author who had her story "enhanced" behind her back by an unsavoury, unprofessional publisher. The general opinion is, of course, "Poor author!" from fellow writers and "Oh God I would never do this!" from horrified (legit) publishers.

Me, even though I can agree that the so-called publisher absolutely deserves the bad press, I'm having a hard time mustering up much pity for the author, who probably could have saved herself a lot of heartache by doing even the slightest bit of reading on the publishing business and What Authors Do. Although some of my ire could be because she ended her post exposing this mess with a nasty extended rape joke, which automatically turns me into Feminist The Destructor. (I use my Bra of Burning whip for +6 damage!)

But this post isn't about her. Rather, it's about a certain subset of author-hopefuls that we've all probably had a run in with. And to them I say,

Newbie authors, do your damn homework. (It's for your own good!)

I'm a new author myself. This time last year, Violetta Vane and I were just discussing the possibility of writing an M/M novel together, reading genre favourites and checking out publishers and coming up with a plan to write a novel we could be proud of and that would also satisfy reader expectations. In the time since, I've definitely made some mistakes. I've sold things to houses where they weren't a good fit, I've given away freebies that I should have charged for, I've charged for things that should have been freebies, and I've committed a few genre snafus.

But let me tell you a little something about a weird phenomenon I've been a part of. Last December, shortly after hearing back from Carina, I announced on my personal Facebook that I was going to be published. I didn't say when or what or even who my author persona was--I live in a small town and I'm technically a teacher and I'm also closeted about the fact that I'm bisexual and basically having any of this get out around town could be damaging to not only my career and reputation, but possibly my physical safety--but I did say, vaguely, that I was now an author of romance novels. Because hey, I was really proud of myself and wanted to share my happiness with friends and family. Nothing wrong with that!

Well, in the intervening months, a pattern began to develop. Someone I only rarely spoke with would send me a private message on my FB account saying "Congrats!" and asking (sort of) about my books. You know, the definition of "ask" where you get the distinct sense the asker doesn't give two shits about your answers and you're tempted to just start saying things like "Green! A pancake! Two tickets to The Avengers, please!" And then three or four messages into this "conversation", the other shoe would drop:

"Do you know a good agent? I'd compare my books to Stephen King's."
(I write romance, why would I know horror agents? Also, the Stephen King thing? Don't do that. Just... don't.) 
"I'm thinking of writing a book, can you get me published?"
(I'm not a publisher. And even if I was, you'd have to query me a hell of a lot better than that.) 
"Hey I want to make some extra money, how do I write ebooks?"
(The same way you write normal books: put in a ton of effort for small to middling returns. Unless you're EL James, I guess.) 
"How do you write romance novels? They're so shitty and formulaic. I could totally write porn for dumb housewives!"
(Fuck you.)

And since these people are my friends, I take my time writing them thoughtful answers in return and sharing my (uh, limited) wisdom. But sometimes I just want to shout JUST FUCKING GOOGLE IT. It seems to me that so many people want the prestige of writing: the antique typewriter and coffee "lifestyle", the cred of appearing intellectual and artistic, the dizzying high of seeing your name on the spine of a book... I get that. But these same people don't seem to care or acknowledge that writing is a job, and that means it comes with boring, tedious work, including research.

Work like:

  • Maintaining multiple social media accounts, even on platforms you despise (FUCK YOU YAHOO GROUPS)
  • Editing the same passage multiple times to fix minor (but critical) sentence-level errors until your own words start to look like some incomprehensible dialect of Klingon
  • Filing paperwork with the IRS
  • Researching publishers
  • Trying to wrap your head around jargon-heavy contract language
  • Tailoring queries, checking and double-checking you're sending the right thing to the right person at the right time
  • Reading a LOT within the genre, even stuff that's terrible or that you don't personally enjoy, because you need to understand the shape of who's writing and reading what (okay this one is often pretty awesome because reading is the BEST)
  • etc. etc. etc.  

I once told one of my hapless questioners that she should have a look at the Absolute Write Water Cooler (an absolutely invaluable resource for newbie and seasoned writers alike) and got a curt-borderline-nasty reply.

Because that's the difference between a writer and a wannabe. One thinks an idea and an inclination magically makes a bestselling book, and the other is willing to do all the butt-busting work in between.


  1. The two places all aspiring writers should start with... FAQs at Absolutewrite.com, and this video ;-)


    1. That video really is a must-see. I wish I'd seen it five years ago when I was in college.

  2. Fantastic post! So true.

  3. Great post, Heidi and oh, so true. One thing I've learned, though, no matter how much research you do on a publisher (and I researched each one of mine,) there can be surprises, things you don't find in the FAQs or in the wonderful emails you get when you aren't complaining about something.

    I've had a couple of publishers that, despite the careful internet research and the careful reading of the contracts, have burned me, and in ways other than finacial. Lack of even sufficient editing; no input in covers, which if I'm putting my name on something, I want it to be something I can be proud of; the horrible Right of First Refusal Clause (new authors will sign those contracts, because they don't know they can negotiate the clause out,) which, despite the fact that we own our characters, we don't always own what we do with them; sudden changes in the way royalties are paid, including date changes from the 12th of the month, to the end of the month, with no notice; the abject lack of communication, despite myriad emails; and the list goes on and on. And oh, yeah, the infernal Yahoo groups.

    Do research, absolutely, but also listen to other authors and learn by experience.


    1. Absolutely true, Brita. There's always surprises and even when there's not, there is definitely a learning curve to the business. Right of first refusal is truly a nasty beast of a thing, too. Luckily, no publisher of mine has wanted it yet, so that's always good! The support of other authors is completely indispensable, especially when you're trying to wrap your head around the stuff that can otherwise only be learned by experience.

      Thanks for your comment! :)

  4. Great post! I noticed that a couple of comments mentioned Yahoo Groups. Er, what's the issue with Yahoo Groups?