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An author reflects on publishing

Last week must have been the week for writing and publishing questions. I’ll be honest: I don’t know much about publishing successfully. And I think the advice I’ve dispensed over the years has done a lot more to dissuade potential authors than it has to encourage them.
Someone asked me last week if I would write full-time if I thought I could make a good living off it. That’s an easy answer. Absolutely. So I guess it’s telling that I have a regular 40-hour-a-week job with a salary and benefits and three bosses.

The downsides of writing: Nothing is certain. There’s no way to know how many copies a book will sell, so there’s no way to know how much money you’ll make from quarter to quarter. There’s no way to know if you’ll have steady work. Steve DeLassus was telling me about some book proposals someone else we both know is currently pitching. This other guy said the publisher was really excited.

To me, that’s like getting excited because that young, single and attractive girl who just started in HR smiled at you as she passed you in the hall. Just because she smiled doesn’t mean she wants to marry you. A publisher’s excitement about a book proposal is worth less than the change in your pocket. The change you have in your pocket is certain, and it already belongs to you.

Publishing a book is a long road, like dating. It’s so much like dating that I almost started referring to Optimizing Windows by a girl’s name while I was writing it. I nixed that when one of my friends told me that was too weird and psycho. But think about it. Finding an idea is like getting interested in a girl. Finding a publisher is like asking a girl out. You probably get more rejections than you’d like. And maybe you ask the same one more than once. Writing the book and getting it to press is like the dating and engagement process. Hopefully you’re both excited and both working hard. But it’s sunk if either one of you gives up. Halfway through my second book, my publisher pulled the plug on it. A contract is no guarantee.

So, how do you pick a publisher? I wish I knew. I’ve worked with good ones and bad ones. The very best one I’ve worked with, by a long shot, is Dennis Publishing, a British magazine producer. But that’s magazines, not books.

An agent can help you find a publisher, but the agent doesn’t necessarily know everything, and the agent’s best interests may or may not be your best interests. Sometimes they are, but sometimes no. At times while I was writing my second book, I felt like both my publisher and my agent were taking advantage of me. I absolutely hated answering my phone.

But if you don’t have an existing relationship with an editor somewhere, it’s definitely much easier to get in the door with an agent. An agent, after all, knows the industry much better than most authors do, and has contact with a larger number of publishers and editors. The agent may even be able to call in a favor to get you noticed. And agents are typically always looking for new authors, whereas most editors would probably rather be doing other things and are more likely to listen to an agent than a wannabe writer. After all, if the writer is totally worthless and the idea is totally worthless, the agent has better things to do.

You may decide later not to use an agent. I don’t use one to do magazine gigs. There, you’re usually dealing with flat rate per-word pay, so it doesn’t make any sense to pay an agent 10% to firm up non-negotiables, especially in my case when the editor had already made all of the terms clear and was also making it very clear that he was eager to work with me.

But if you’re asking questions like what publishers would be best under specific circumstances and who would be the most likely to promote your book, you need an agent.

I’m not an expert. I signed two books and published one of them. I’ve published a number of magazine articles. I guess the most valuable thing I have to say is that most people need an agent but should be careful.

Hopefully my thoughts are better than nothing.

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