Breaking in, Breaking out, Dropping out

It is one of the most regular questions asked of any professional writer: How do I break into the field?

It is also one of the most difficult questions to answer and one that at any time you ask it as a newby, you can be sure of getting an answer that’s AT LEAST ten years out of date.  Sometimes twenty.

The advice I got, which arguably allowed me to break into the field, was unarguably at least ten years out of date, and it might have been twenty.  And while it, in its simplicity – write, submit, query, attend cons, get an agent, let the agent find you an editor, write more.  Keep writing.  Keep attending cons – worked (with modifications.  I found my first editor.  At a writers’ workshop.) to break in, it did not work to break out, nor did its auxiliary advice “write a d*mn good book.”

By the time I came in that pathway to success was broken.  I’m not going to beat this dead horse.  I explained how it worked for me here.  (And here I’m not going on my own writing and I’m not saying “my books are the best thing since sliced bread” though I’ll note my bestseller friends are all baffled at my books not having broken out, yet, on quality alone.  I’m going on what I’ve seen from other writers I KNOW are writing books so d*mn good that they’re the best behaved little demons ever.  And yet they are stuck where I am.  Or they can’t break in at all.  Or they’re somewhat below me in midlist hell.  Everyone who reads them agrees they’re amazing, but… very few people ever read them.)

I don’t know when I noticed the advice was not working and that there were troubling indications that it couldn’t work.  I think it was about five years AFTER I broke in.  This was because I’m slow, and also because when things don’t work as advertised, I tend to think I’m doing something wrong.  So, when I noted that agents did not in fact fight for a better advance FOR ME and often talked my expectations down, I assumed it was because my books weren’t that good.  When my books didn’t show up on ANY bookshelves and I was blamed because they hadn’t sold, I assumed it wasn’t because they weren’t that good.  Etc.

It took an attempt on the part of an agent to talk me into a contract clause that was criminally insane, and which – if I’d taken it as was – could have prevented me from writing ANYTHING for five to ten years and possibly for life depending on the whim of the house, all for the princely sum of 30k for me to realize perhaps not all was right in the field and that things didn’t work as advertised.

I still kept trying to make them work as advertised, and I still thought I MUST be doing something wrong to get the peculiar treatment I was.  This was a peculiarly insane place to be.  One of my fans, who is hanging out in a nannowrimo mailing list with me compared the process I went through for the last ten years to taking my children to the temple before I found out if they got to live or be sacrificed to Moloch.  Wish it were just that.  It was also, after they decided the kid would live – i.e. be published – seeing them decide to cut off the kid’s legs (bad cover; no marketing plan; not even bothering to get it in bookstores) and then blame me because it couldn’t walk.
But I kept trying, because hang it all, I’d been given advice by experts and it MUST be good advice.

And then at cons I started meeting a new breed of “young, talented and making it very fast” writer.  This started about five years ago.  They had self-published and then sold to a traditional publisher.  (Now, remember, five years ago.  No ebooks yet.)  Once they came into the traditional house, they got the treatment I wanted but never got – promotion, interest, advertising money.

I was intrigued, but while I saw it as a new pathway in, I didn’t see it as one I could take.  No, not even if I were able to start again.  Part of this is because every one of these authors was a self-marketing powerhouse.  The ones I know personally would publish the book then spend EVERY waking moment marketing the living daylights out of it.

I couldn’t do that.  First of all because my books have no natural “Platform” (take, for instance my friend Larry Correia.  He’s a gun expert/instructor/weapons dealer who writes about people killing monsters with guns.  Natural platform.  No, that’s not all he writes about or what makes his books interesting.  BUT it does give him a venue/in to promote stuff.) I don’t write about things I’m an expert in, though I research (of course) for the books I’m writing.  But saying “I read everything I could find about World War I for three years obsessively” doesn’t make me a credentialed expert.  If I wrote a book about a translator (I still would like to do a space opera about translators to the stars) I could see having a “platform” but it’s not really a “sexy” or controversial one, and I don’t see it getting me into talk shows.  Not even local ones.

However, I noted it was a way in.  And when people asked me about how to break in, I pointed it out to them, usually with the caveat “I wouldn’t self publish, because there’s a stigma, but…”  If the person had a natural platform, say like my friend Amanda, who has law-enforcement experience, I could see telling her (I might have, in fact) “send it in, sell it.  Tell them you’re willing to give talks on law enforcement to mystery writers all over the country, and to hopeful mystery writers, and help promote your book.”

And then things changed, again.  In fact, they’re in the middle of a tumbling change, and right now it’s very hard to answer that question.  If I had to this would be my VERY qualified (as in “I’m putting qualifications on this”, not as in, “I’m qualified” answer.)

There are a few things you must understand about publishing right now and which are non-debatable:

1 – No one knows anything
2 – Publishers and Agents are in trouble, mostly because they’re avoiding making necessary changes.
3 – The old model of “it’s not so much what you write but what you are that will determine your success” is still very much in place.
4 – most publishers are not most writers’ friends.

Given this, this is the best advice I can give:
1- In most cases, don’t get an agent.  They don’t have the power they used to in the field, and they’re getting desperate and a little insane.

1.a. – I have a good friend who is an agent, and I MIGHT still sign with him if I were a newby.  I can’t imagine him doing anything business-insane.  OTOH I don’t believe he has that much pull.  No agent does.  Even the “powerhouses”.

1. b. – If you’re writing non fiction this might be different.  I don’t know that it is (and feel free to chime in any of you who do) but I’ve had the impression it might be.  If your agent is THE field expert on eighteenth century furniture and represents every author who writes about it, and you’re writing about it, it might be a good thing to have him represent you.  It will give publishers an assurance you are the real article and know what you’re talking about.

2 – If you think you have a property and/or you’re the type of person who thinks he/she can do well in traditional publishing, send queries out to publishing houses.  Yes, the old “no unsolicited submissions” is still in place, but I understand it’s honored more in the breach.  At any rate, if you go to a writers conference or a small sf con in, say, NYC, and pitch to the editor who then says to send it in, your submission is no longer unsolicited.

2.a. If you sell read that contract like a hawk.  You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff being done.

2.b. Make them cross your palm with silver.  When I broke in I heard the lowest advance for which they promote was 25k.  G-d knows what it is now.  (This is not always true, though, if you’ve become friends with an editor, even a minor one, you might get promotion for your 4k book.)

2.c. Be prepared to promote, and be aware this only REALLY works if you have a “platform” that’s at least tangentially related to your book.  Also, if you don’t have kids or a real life.  Even my “blog tour” for DST ate most of a year and was responsible for how late the second book in that is in coming out.  Not complaining.  Without it, there might NOT be a second book.  OTOH it still ate a whole year.

2. d.  Did I SAY read that contract like a hawk?  Yeah, hire an IP attorney, too.  Because one of the things that could well happen is your house going under – see where everything is in flux – and you don’t want your book caught in that.

3 – You don’t meet or aren’t willing to follow the rules in 2 – to be honest, I was never really able to, both by personality and because when I broke in I had very small children, so a lot of cons, and a lot of publicity were out of the question – consider self publishing.  I say this with all the trepidation of a traditionally published author who still is afraid people will rush into publication with books they’ll be sorry they put out.

3.a – Don’t promote unless you want to.  Unknowns are making more in ebooks than I ever made in my career.

3.b. – Write.  More.  Furiously.  (This does seem to be something that DOES work in ebooks.)

3.c. – when you have ten books written, take the first one free for a month or so.

3.d. – There are no guarantees, but it’s at least as good a chance as in trad publishing and maybe better for the type of writer who “just wants to write.”

3. e – Before you go out half-cocked, research how to do this, so both your formatting and your covers look as good as possible.  This might involve just looking at what’s out there, or taking a workshop, or whatever.

4 – Go with a reputable, small, Indie publisher.

4.a. – This is only apposite if you are either too nervous to go it on your own and/or you are writing in a niche – like erotica say – that some small publisher has made their own.  If they have fans, it will rub off on you.
4.b. – Before you do it, research the market and what are reasonable terms.
4. c – Before you do it, research the house.
4. d – get an IP attorney to look over the contract.  Even if the house is reputable, they might have some snags in there that even they aren’t aware of.  And if they go under, you want to be protected.

Now, where I stand, I’m doing both.  I am still writing for the traditional market and will do so for one house as long as they want me (debts you can’t pay are debts you can’t pay) and for the others if I think it suits my marketing plan, though some of these might be loss leaders.  However, I’m also indie-publishing.  This has removed some of the venom of publishing.  It gives me a portion of it over which I have control.  There’s even a chance I can live from that portion (don’t know yet.  Early days.)  More importantly, if I don’t sell something I wrote, I don’t have to bury it in a drawer, I can still put it directly to the public and hope it finds readers.

For me, this is the best place I’ve been in ten years as a published author.  I can feel myself “decompressing” and look back at the last ten years in a sort of wonder, as though it had been a fever dream, or I’d been crazy.  Stress eating is waaaaaaaaaay down, as is stress-obsession-with news.  (And I didn’t even know that was a symptom of stress.)

Once I get some of my backlog – about 200 short stories/novellas, etc – out, I expect to be able to take weekends off.  Which is predicated on my finding out WHAT one does on such weekends. (Well, it’s been years.  And years.)  I’m looking rather forward to it.

However, my path might not be your path.  If you take nothing else away from this post, DO take that there isn’t only one path.  And that if you’re not breaking in or breaking out the way everyone tells you you should, perhaps the field has changed.  And perhaps you need to, also.

(crossposted at Classical Values)

20 thoughts on “Breaking in, Breaking out, Dropping out

  1. What it takes is a reorientation of viewpoint, and that can be hard. If you’ve been staring into space, trying hard to follow something evanescent and elusive, you might lose sight of it permanently if you turn around — but if you do turn around, something as good or better might be right behind you. (“Might be”. There are no guarantees.)

    One aid there is the concept of the “universal slushpile”. (Not original with me, but I forgot where I saw it.) In the traditional system, an author’s real market was a relatively few people, possibly only a couple of dozen, who had the title of “editor”. The upside was that those customers had a lot of money; the downside was that they were inundated with wannabees, developed prejudices you had to accommodate to sell, and that those prejudices tended to be shared among them. Now, well, some estimates are that 20% of the World has the Internet. That means there are roughly 1.4 billion potential customers for your work. The downside is that none of them has the funds at their disposal that an editor at, say, Simon&Schuster had, or has; the upside is that many of them are prepared to look for something new, and many more have a wide range of prejudices rather than the relatively narrow common set held by “editors”.

    If you think of KDP, PubIt!, Kobo, Smashwords, et. al., as the slushpile of the world, with 1.4 billion editors looking it over for what they consider “publishable”, a lot of things become clear. For one thing, if you can satisfy the prejudices of one-tenth of one percent of the “editors” combing through the universal slushpile, that’s 1.4 million sales, and most anybody could live on that 🙂 0.1% of traditional editors rounds to zero, i.e., no sales at all.

    Years ago there was an SF story about humanity’s contact with a gigantic extraterrestrial civilization. One guy had a closer experience than average and wrote a book about it; the book was universally panned as horrid, so he was surprised (to put it mildly!) when he started getting royalty checks in the millions of qatloos. The publisher’s representative who came to deliver the checks patiently explained that when you’re dealing with a civilization containing some tens of quadrillions of people, selling to even a vanishingly small fraction can produce a decent income. We don’t have quadrillions of potential customers, but a billion or so means that there are quite a few out at three or four sigma, where our market is.


  2. Sarah, this is the sort of post that keeps me going (and Ric’s comment). For years I was one of those pounding on the gates, and getting encouraging noises back from the people on the other side. (“ooh, ooh, almost there, keep it up!”) It kept me going, but almost crippled my writing as I tried to guess what it was they wanted, what that certain something was that my writing lacked.

    I’ve chosen the indie route, and while I don’t have the time or the skills to promote intensively, if I have a chance to sell to a tiniest fraction of the available audience, I’ll be way ahead of where I was two years ago.

    So, thank you.

    1. Quick tip when you have a book available — link the URL to your name when you’re logged in/guest/whatever! (This is entirely self-serving; anytime I see someone post something interesting that suggests they have a book out, I want to go look at it and see if it might be my cup of tea! Unfortunately, I can’t search Amazon/Smashwords/B&N on “kali” and expect to get anything useful. *sad beth in snow*)

      1. Oh, yes, I intend to do that, and the structure is *almost* in place.
        There’s been quite a learning curve . . .

      2. Depending on your genre, Project Wonderful ( can offer a certain amount of low-cost (as in, time, not money, if you’re willing to take the time and settle for some smaller venues) advertising — you can bid $0 for 2 days, and get an ad there so long as no one bids higher.

        I’ve been using it as a way to keep up with some of my favored webcomics, too…

      3. I at least tend to notice a stronger uptick in my freebies (the ones I advertise via Project Wonderful) when I’ve got ads up on Project Wonderful — I don’t yet know if they’ve actually made for-money sales, but even seeing freebie “sales” can be a very small “upper.” (It can take months for someone to read a freebie and decide they want more. But, well, there’s better chance if they find the freebie in the first place, right?)

        And occasionally a stray sale will come in from out of the blue. I like those.

  3. Ric Locke Said : “For one thing, if you can satisfy the prejudices of one-tenth of one percent of the “editors” combing through the universal slushpile, that’s 1.4 million sales, and most anybody could live on that ,,,,,”

    thank you Ric. That’s possibly the most encouraging thing that I’ve heard or read recently.

  4. 1b. Naw, still don’t get an agent. I’m a non-fiction guy and I”m here to tell you, they can’t do anything you can’t do for yourself, and you save the agent’s 15%.

    No need for agents any more. Editors, that’s a bit different. I’m one of those too. But you don’t need a trad house for that service any more either. There’s plenty of us out there willing to work freelance and you maintain a lot more control working with us than you do with a publishing house.

  5. Doing both traditional publishing and indie publishing also has the sideeffect of being able to negotiate with traditional publishers from a position of power. If they know you are also indie publishing works and doing at least decently at it, they know they are going to have to offer you decent terms to get your work, if they want it there offers should be better than in the past.

  6. A minor corollary to the point #1 – No one knows anything: much of what people know is wrong; in a rapidly changing environment, the more a person knows of the former environment the more suspect is their knowledge of the developing environment.

    Don’t make me have to explain that, it took all my will power to not state principle #1 as “nobody don’t know nothing.”

  7. Sarah – thanks for this post. I appreciate the perspective on breaking “out” (I’ve mostly been focused for the last year on breaking in, getting an agent, etc). Prior to writing, I was a marketing and advertising exec (with an MBA). It’s been harder and harder to talk myself out of the indie path, purely as a business decision. It just seems smarter.

  8. I’m not going to go into detail on my thoughts, other than to say that I’ve been struggling for years to ‘break in’, with seven novels under my belt and none published.

    I simply wanted to say thank you. This is one of the most informative and honest opinions/insights I’ve come across in writing..since … probably ever, bar from Stephen King’s On Writing. And that’s saying something.

    (From someone with a young family, I understand the pain). Best of luck to you.

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