While many books about writing offer useful tips on how to write well and -- sometimes -- how to sell your work, most don't give you a clue about what will happen after you make your first sale. This page offers some advice based on my thirty years of experience making a living (such as it is) from writing, beginning with selling your first story, essay, or magazine article. You'll notice that some of this advice comes from mistakes I've made, so maybe you won't make the same mistakes.
...Or will you?
But first, what if...?
Before we get to after the sale, you might want to consider a few things about becoming a writer that you usually won't find in books. I call these what if things. There's a passage in a James Bond novel that goes something like: The mistakes you make early in the game usually can't be fixed and are often the most deadly. Assuming you hope to have a writing career, you should ask yourself what if you suddenly became successful in the mainstream sense of the word... which means lots of reviews and publicity, fairly big money, and possibly a movie deal?
You might say duh, ain't that what it's all about, but consider that sudden success -- fame without fortune -- can really screw up your life if you haven't taken a few precautions to protect yourself, your family and loved-ones... things that can only be done before becoming successful.
Of course it may be different for you, but I found that sudden fame before getting some money was like being Buckwheat at a Klan convention. You might feel totally alone and vulnerable, not only to every wacko, hater and hustler -- including all the friends you never knew you had and who now want some of your money -- but also to the news media. When everybody from The National Enquirer to The New York Times, along with local reporters want to interview you -- often at home -- and pry into your past and personal life. This may also include the past and personal lives of your family, kids, friends and neighbors. It's always a crime to be poor in a rich society, and most poor people who go to prison are sent there because they don't have money to protect themselves... in case you didn't know. Likewise, it takes money to protect yourself from fame.
And, assuming you're black, and not an incognegro, you ought to know that despite all the "We are the world" and politically-correct lip-service given to equality these days, there is still a very large segment of the white population, including in the media, who will try their damndest to take you down.
One simple thing you can do is rent a private post office box, not close to your home, and use that address for all your submissions and writing correspondence.
Also be careful about giving out your phone number to everyone you meet through your writing. Letting everyone know where you live and how to contact you can be frustrating, inconvenient, and even dangerous.
Clean up your act on the internet -- if it needs cleaning up -- so it won't come back to haunt you. You might regret a picture, blog or rant you posted if it's brought up in an interview on national TV. For example, when the news media was trying to demonize Captain Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez they dug up an old college photo of him posed by a tower of beer cans... as if most college kids don't drink.
This is also a good time to establish a website with a reliable server to tell the world you're a writer and start getting listed on search engines.
As far as your writing, it's not smart to put your friends, neighbors, or local real-life characters into your works of fiction in ways they can identify themselves... "Hey that's me!" Even as a compliment. Don't even joke about putting actual people in your book or stories, whether you like them or not. Of course characters have to have names, and some may have the same first or last names as people you know, but they don't have to have both names, or look like the real folk.
Be careful what you say about yourself early in your career... even if it's true. You might find it funny -- like I did -- to say in story bio that you used to dig through Dumpsters for aluminum cans (which I did) but never forget, like getting arrested, anything you say now can and will be used against you later.
No matter what you write about and how well you write it, not everyone is going to love your book or respect you as an author... or even as a person. And, don't try to "keep it real" for the sake of street cred. Most of those folk won't be buying your book anyway -- assuming they could read it -- and you'll probably have to protect yourself from them as much as from the media.
Of course, no bad, inconvenient or embarrassing things may happen to you, but... what if...?
Your first story or article
Having one of your stories or an article or essay accepted by a magazine or newspaper is usually a lot less formal and complicated than selling a book to a publisher. You will probably get a letter of acceptance, maybe in your SASE (check Submitting Your Writing) which may include a relatively simple contract. Same applies to email. Or, the contract may follow a few days or weeks later. If your story was accepted by a small or literary magazine that doesn't pay money to its contributors, the contract will usually say that you will get at least one free copy of the magazine or issue in which your story appears.
The editor will probably want to edit your work... the editing process is covered in the book publishing section later on this page.
If the magazine, newspaper or whatever does pay money, there are usually two basic forms of payment... payment upon acceptance, meaning you will probably get a check sometime after you return the signed copies of the contract, and payment upon publication, meaning you will usually get a check after the magazine or issue in which your story appears is published.
Speaking as one who tries to make a living from writing, payment upon acceptance is the most desirable. Many small, literary, or special-interest magazines only publish a few times, or even once, a year. This means that you may have to wait months to be paid. Usually this is not negotiable, and unless the magazine offers you a contact for several articles or stories, these terms can't be changed. Many small, special-interest or lit-mags have editors that could be described as full of themselves (many big-time publishers, too, for that matter) so it's usually safest not to try and negotiate payment upon acceptance for only one story or article or the editor may go foamy and decide not to publish your work after all.
If you are offered a long-term or multiple-article/story contract, then you can try -- politely -- to negotiate for payment upon acceptance. I did this with one magazine for which I write several articles a year.
But... be aware that you will usually have to give up something for payment upon acceptance. In my case I gave up all other rights to my articles. This means that this publisher uses my work in more than one of its magazines... with no additional payments to me. This publisher can also use my work in a book, CD, or on its website (and does), again with no additional payments to me. So, this might be something to consider before you try for payment upon acceptance.
Most magazines buy First Serial Rights, which is the right to publish your story or article the first time, one time. This means that, technically at least, your piece has not been published before. (If it has, cross your fingers and don't say anything.) Generally you will keep the rights to sell the work somewhere else... after this particular magazine has published it. Sometimes a magazine will also ask for the right to publish your work in an anthology at some later date. In most cases you will usually retain Second Serial Rights, which is the right to sell your work again... after this magazine has published it. All sales after that are called Second Serial Rights no matter how many times the story is published. For example, Crusader Rabbit is my most-published story... over a dozen times so far.
What's an anthology? An anthology is usually a book of stories, articles, essays or poems (or a mix of same) written by different authors, as opposed to a collection, which is usually a book of stories, essays, articles or poems written by the same author.
Most magazine contracts are fairly simple. The main things to watch for and understand are when you will be paid and what rights you're selling to your work.
You will probably find that paying the author is usually the least important of priorities, and most publishers will delay paying you for as long as they possibly can.
While it annoys me that the publisher I mentioned uses my articles -- often tweaked and poorly edited -- in many of its other magazines without paying me another penny, I knew what I was getting into, and getting the money up front makes the annoyance bearable. About the only time to watch your back is when a magazine wants all the rights to your work. Most large magazines don't ask for all rights; but some some small lit-mags do. (Ironically, these are often magazines that don't pay anything!) If you hope to have a long and successful writing career, be careful when selling rights to your first works... you may be trading that off-the-hook feeling of seeing your first story in print for rage and frustration a few years later when you can't sell a story for big bucks because some little magazine that only "paid" you one free copy owns all the rights!
You may have heard of authors who've died penniless (sometimes after committing suicide) when their books or stories were popular all over the world and were even made into movies... this is one way that can happen.
On the other hand, don't be paranoid and think all publishers are out to screw you... except for delaying paying you for as long as they possibly can. The real art of screwing writers is practiced in the film industry. Just understand what rights you're selling and when, how, or if, you will be paid. That warm fuzzy feeling of seeing your work between covers, as well as being able to say you're a published author at last, may be worth giving up all the rights to one story. After all, you're gonna write a lot of stories, aren't you?
In any case, don't put a down-payment on that airplane until the publisher's check has cleared your bank.
Your first book contract
While, again, most magazine contracts are fairly simple, most book publisher's contracts will probably scare the shit out of you unless you're a literary lawyer or a GOOD literary agent. (Most film contracts scare the shit out many literary lawyers and literary agents.) My first big-time book sale, for Way Past Cool, was made through a good literary agent who had my (and her) backs, but the sales of my first two books, Rats In The Trees and Children Of The Night, were made by stupid little me, and I basically just crossed my fingers and signed the contracts.
I haven't regretted it too much.
Most book sales to big-time publishers are made through literary agents these days (see the Literary Agents and Submitting Your Work pages). If your book was sold through an agent then you can start worrying how good that agent is. He or she will probably notify you of the sale... which is not a sale until the check has cleared your bank. (Never forget this with any book or story!) I'm not trying to make you paranoid, but there are a million things that can go wrong between a letter of acceptance, the signing of the contract, and your book actually getting out on shelves. And not all of those things could be your fault. We'll get to those in a while.
If you were lucky enough to make a sale to a big-time publisher on your own, you may want to get a literary agent now, or contact a good literary lawyer to help negotiate or at least read your contract. You might be surprised at how many agents who rejected your work may want to represent you now... since you did the hard part for them. If so, don't be smug or smart-ass about it. Most editors will understand if you want to get an agent at this point. Some may even welcome an agent, or even help you find one. Just don't take too long.
If you have an agent, or just got one, the contract will probably be sent to them: this may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. The editor who bought your book may contact you via phone or email to basically check you out. Or, an assistant editor may... usually the one who will be working on your book.
This is a time to be NICE!
The editor will probably talk about editing your book... after all, that's why they're called editors. If so, be cooperative... even submissive. If you want to think of it as "acting white," that's your problem, just do it.
I've found that editing is usually a bartering process --- you basically give up small things to keep what you think is really important -- and we'll get to that later. Right now never forget that this editor probably reads many manuscripts every week, and while he or she apparently chose yours to be published, don't be fool enough to think that they don't have plenty of other choices if you piss them off.
The editor may ask about possible cover designs. If so, feel free to express your ideas, though unless you're offered "Cover Consultation," or (rarely) "Cover Approval" in your contract, the publisher will usually do what it wants to do with the cover. The editor may also ask for ideas about marketing strategies or tour venues. If so, be professional and businesslike (and NICE) about what you think will help sell your book.
We'll get to the editing process later, but at this point... JUST BE NICE!
Always remember that book publishing is a business. If, for example, the editor says something like, "I know we'll be publishing a lot of books together," it means about the same as a used car salesman saying a car was only driven by a little old lady to church on Sunday.
Again, if your sale was made though an agent, you will get the contract from them after he or she has gone over it. This process is sometimes called vetting. A good agent will have usually made changes in the contract for your benefit (as well as theirs). Such changes can be anything from a bigger advance, higher royalties, faster payment, retaining more rights, Cover Consultation or (rarely) Cover Approval, right on down to how many free author copies you'll get. Unless you have a good reason not to -- and it's a little late in the game for that -- trust your agent. Remember that they are going to make money, too. Sign the contracts (usually several copies) promptly and return them... usually to your agent. If you have questions about the contract, discuss them with your agent, not the editor.
Most book advances are paid half upon singing the contract and the other half upon book publication. Some are paid a third upon signing, a third upon completion of editing (when the editor receives a "satisfactory manuscript") and the final third upon publication. Don't celebrate too much until the first check has cleared your bank.
If something goes wrong and your book isn't published will you have to give the money back? Maybe. Another thing to discuss with your agent.
What's an advance?
An advance is money paid to a writer as soon as a publisher decides they want a manuscript and makes a contract with the writer. The amount is based upon how many of your books a publisher thinks it can sell... which is more than often wrong either way, especially with a first book. Depending upon your royalties -- the percentage you will be paid from every copy of your book that is sold -- the publisher makes a (supposedly) educated guess and advances you money based on that guess. If they guess wrong one way... say you're paid a small advance and your book becomes a huge success, then everybody is happy and you'll make more money over and above your advance from royalty payments. On the other hand, if the publisher pays you a big advance and your book doesn't sell, they will be much less inclined to buy another book from you... because they lost money.
Large advances can be a double-edged sword... good for you in the short run because you get big money up front, but maybe bad in the long run because if your book doesn't make back its advance then the publisher probably won't buy another book from you.
It's technically possible but extremely rare that an author is forced to repay an advance if a book totally flops. Discuss this with your agent.
Just another pretty face
You've probably heard the old saying, "You can't judge a book by its cover." While this is often true in life, most casual browsers in book stores do judge books by their covers, at least when it comes to taking a book off a shelf and glancing through it. Most publishers have an art department and marketing staff who are supposed to know what sells books, and most of the time you will just have to trust their judgement... though it's often wrong when it comes to black books.
A good agent will usually get you Cover Consultation, assuming your publisher doesn't offer it. This means basically nothing except that the publisher will ask for your ideas on the cover design but is under no obligation to use them... and probably won't.
If you have ideas about the cover, express them rationally (and NICELY) from a businesslike marketing point of view. For example, for most of my books aimed at young black male readers, I say that I'd like to see non-stereotypical images of young black males.
Cover Approval, meaning that you actually get to chose the cover design is fairly rare and is usually only offered to big-time best-selling authors, so don't feel bad if you don't get it.
However, any ideas you do have, whether for cover designs, marketing strategies or tour venues, should be expressed rationally, NICELY, and early in the publishing process before the publisher locks into its own plans.
Keep being nice
Don't bitch, sulk or pout if your ideas aren't used and/or your editor insists on making changes to your book that you don't like. ...If there's only one piece of advice you actually follow from this page let it be, DON'T PISS-OFF AN EDITOR!
Most editors, even senior editors, at big publishing houses don't have much power to say yes these days... meaning to buy a book from an author. Most books, like most movies, are chosen by a committee... which is why so many of them suck. However, most editors are totally free to say NO for any reason, however illogical, including their own personal issues or prejudices. For example, an editor at a major publisher doesn't like me because I made fun of him in a magazine article. He published one of my books, which has been in print for over twenty years in hardcover, trade-paper, and library formats -- which, I'm told, is pretty good for a young-adult novel -- but even though this book made back its advance years ago and is still making money for his company, he told me in a letter that "he will never buy another book from me."
In other words, he's biting off his nose to spite his company's face... and the company is apparently letting him.
If you're a black author, never forget that every black book, including yours, is a first book and if you want to stay in the game BE NICE... especially to editors!
You do have an option if you feel an editor is messing up your book... don't publish it with that publisher. If so, you will probably have to pay back your advance and there may be other charges, too. Also know that the publishing world is a very small place and word will get around, so you may have trashed your writing career before you even had one.
Hurry up and wait
You've received and read your book contract -- and probably don't understand most of it -- signed and returned it to your agent. What happens now? Probably nothing for a few weeks or maybe even a month or two... though you might get your first advance check within a few weeks. There's a saying in the military: "Hurry up and wait." Soldiers are roused at 05:00, quick-marched to the mess hall, then wait two hours for breakfast and are expected to eat it all in five minutes. The publishing process is much like that: nothing happens for a long time, then you're suddenly thrown into a frenzy of editing, proof-reading, etc. Then you wait again.
What do you do while you're waiting? Work on your next book!
Other things you can do: contact authors who might be willing to blurb your book. What's a blurb? A blurb is that paragraph of bullshit on a book cover or jacket, usually by another author or literary figure, saying how great your book is... and sometimes whether or not they've actually read it.
If you're a black author, you may also want to research black book stores and suggest these to your publisher as part of a book tour.
You can also make suggestions as to who might be willing to review your book... other authors, public figures, etc.
There are two basic rules when it comes to dealing with editors and editing your work.
#1. With very few exceptions, an editor is not your friend.
#2. BE NICE!
Incidentally, one of the basic rules of magic is demons love compliments... which works with editors, too.
Writing may be art, but publishing is a business, and if you hope to be a writer in any major way you have to treat the publishing process -- and editing is a part of that process -- in a businesslike manner. When I say that an editor is not your friend I don't mean you can't be friendly with your editor, but always remember that an editor is your boss and act accordingly.
In book publishing there are usually three basic levels or steps in the editing process. You could call these rough editing, final editing, and galleys or galley proofs... though different publishing houses call them different things. Likewise, the process itself differs from house to house. We'll get to that in a minute, but just like having simpler contracts, the editing process for magazine stories, articles or essays is also usually simpler than publishing a book. The same usually applies if your work was accepted for an anthology. Often there is only one step, which sort of combines rough and final editing... though with larger magazines or anthologies you may also get to see and maybe correct the galley proofs.
Most magazines and anthologies will publish your story, essay, or article as they accepted it with only minor editing in regard to typos, misspellings or grammar. You'll have one chance to see what they've done, and correct and/or argue about it. Some small and lit-mags will do this minor editing and you won't be involved or asked for approval. However, most bigger magazines will usually send you either the edited hardcopy to proof and correct, or may work with you via email... which is usually how it's done these days. Hopefully, this will be the case with your first sale and you'll get to see your work between covers the way I assume you meant it to be.
On the other hand, you may meet the editor from hell.
There are some editors who seem to want to leave their mark (or stain) on every piece of work they publish. If your first time is with one of these demons it still might be educational because you'll appreciate a good but less hellish editor when you meet him or her later in the game. It may come as a shock after you've gotten your letter of acceptance, signed the contracts and returned them, maybe even gotten your check and you're all pumped up waiting to see your first work in print and then...
...you get a snail-mail envelope, or email with attachment, and find that your beautiful work has been butchered like a cow for McDonalds! Words, sentences, whole paragraphs have been cut, shortened, altered, or even deleted! Many of your carefully chosen words and phrases that sing have been changed to dull, dry idioms that croak! Maybe the beginning of your story was cut and there is only a curt scribble in red pen or typed in the attachment: "story should begin here." Maybe the ending was changed or shortened. Maybe a scene or two was deleted.
This happened with my first published story. I felt confused at first (indignation and rage came later). This editor had said he loved my work; he'd paid me the highest honorarium the magazine offered; so what was so wrong with my story that he seemed to want to rewrite it!?!
Fortunately, in the time that had passed since I'd sold this story I had sold three more to other magazines -- including one that this editor had rejected -- and none of their editors had messed with them. I was lucky enough to have a yardstick to measure my work and regain some confidence in my writing ability, so I decided that my first editor was full of himself (and something else) and just wanted to screw with my story for the same reason a dog licks his Jimmy. Over twenty years later I found I was right: this particular editor (now retired) just liked to mess with anything he bought. He's mentioned in several interviews that he preferred to work with new writers rather than established ones. Speaking from a cynical writer's point of view, this seems logical because most established writers wouldn't tolerate his editing!
I decided that, since I needed the money he'd paid me -- and I sure as hell wasn't gonna give it back! -- I would humor him. (The way one humors an unreasonable boss.) I bartered for what I thought was important to the story -- words, sentences here and there -- and let him cut or change the things that didn't seem to matter as much. You could say that's the basics of editing.
Just don't be fool enough to think that editors don't know it.
This editor bought two more of my stories over the years. When he bought the third story I told him I felt I had paid my dues as a writer (eight published books in eight languages) and didn't want it edited in any major way. He published the story but never bought another thing from me. Is he the worst editor I've ever worked with... at least in this way?
On the other hand, editors keep their jobs by choosing stories, articles, essays, etc. and editing them in ways they think their readers want to read so it's smart to trust their judgement. Be nice and work with them and you'll usually both be happy and make some money. Don't go into the writing game with the FANTASY that your work is always going to be published exactly how you wrote it and no one will ever change a word.
The only way that's ever gonna happen is if you publish it yourself!
Also on the other hand, don't be a writer from hell who bitches, rants, argues and sulks about every word an editor wants to edit. You won't last long in the game if you do.
In any case, you should always do your editing or proofing promptly (like yesterday) and get the corrections back to the editor as soon as possible and well before the deadline. Other than not constantly arguing about changes to your work, I can't think of a better way to make an editor happy than to do your own editing and proofing as quickly as possible. Then the editor can put your piece to bed and get on with his or her other projects.
As with book publishing, the time to make most and any major changes to your work -- and/or to barter with an editor about those changes -- is in the first step or rough editing process... not when your work has reached the galley stage when making any changes other than a word or two is complicated for the publisher and also costs them money. You may even be charged for making changes in the galleys.
The book publishing process
It usually takes about a year from the time a book manuscript is accepted to when a book is actually printed and out on bookstore shelves. A few "experts" claim this is necessary, and maybe it was in the steam age, but it isn't today. This is why most books for teens are always a little dated when it comes to language, expressions and slang.
As mentioned above, the book publishing process is usually hurry-up and wait, beginning with waiting for your contract, then your first advance check, then the first round of editing. Also as mentioned above, it's in this first editing that you should do most (if any) arguing and bartering with your editor about changes he or she wants to make, as well as any major changes you want to make. But, you should never think of editing as rewriting: the time for major rewrites was before you sent your manuscript out for submission. After all, the editor bought your work because he or she liked it more or less as it was.
This is also usually the time to add your dedication and acknowledgments, and it's polite to include your editor and agent... though some editors may decline that honor.
Never forget that the less arguing, bartering, and changes you want to make in your work will usually give you more bonus points with an editor. This could mean the editor will want to buy more books from you in the future. Even if your first book is fairly successful, an editor may not want to work with you again if you've been a writer from hell... or in my case, as the British say, made an editor a figure of fun.
Not one of my cooler moves.
During the second round of editing you should keep any bartering or changes down to no more than a sentence here and there, or maybe one or two paragraphs in the entire manuscript. If you haven't already, add your dedication and acknowledgments.
When your manuscript has reached the galley stage it usually means that your book has been typeset in regard to font style, font size, and what each page will look like when printed. At this point only a word or two can be changed without messing up the pages! Any changes beyond that are usually unwelcome and annoying to an editor. Not only are they unwelcome and annoying, but trying to make a lot of changes in the galleys can delay publication of your book... because someone must now reset the whole thing. You may even be charged for this extra work, which may come out of your next or final advance check.
Generally, when you proof your galleys you're only looking for typos, misspellings and punctuation errors. If you feel you absolutely must change a word or alter a sentence, try to be sure that making this change won't change the number of sentences on the galley page. If you push even one word onto the next page, it will change that page, too. It may also change all the pages to the end of that chapter. Someone will have to make these changes before the book can be printed. That someone will have to paid. You may be the one who pays them... and they don't work cheap!
Been there, done that
Back in the 1990s when people were beginning to discover computers and the internet, a lot of folks (myself included) would say "I don't need a computer or the internet" ...and the people who had computers and were on the internet would just smile.
...Which is what I do whenever some new and as yet unpublished writer tells me they're gonna get published and do things their way.
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