Publishing: 7 Things Lessons Learned From My First Book Deal

One of the things I really love about this writing life is that we meet other writers along the way, and we never know where they will end up.

truepathcover233X175Four years ago I started out on Twitter as a newbie, with no author friends at all, and one of the first people I connected with was Graham Storrs. I hadn’t even started writing fiction at the time, but Graham’s first book Timesplash was well on the way.

He wrote a fantastic post on what that first experience taught him, and now he’s back, with a traditional book deal and a new book, True Path. I’m delighted to see how far Graham has come in these few years, and I hope you’re also encouraged. Seeing how much we can all achieve over the years is one of the precious things about blogging!

Signing with a publisher is a big deal for a writer.

For most of us it is the achievement of a lifetime ambition, something we’ve dreamed about since childhood. It certainly was for me when I signed up with a small NY press to publish my novel, Timesplash. It wasn’t the first book I’d written – more like the tenth – but it was the one that has always got publishers most excited.

That was three years ago and that first deal went on to break my heart. Sales were dismal and the book looked like a complete flop. But the experience taught me a few things about publishing in today’s chaotic marketplace that might be of interest.

(1) You Get More Than One Chance

Even as recently as 2010, people were telling me that if you got a book published and it flopped, you might never get another go. The publishers, they said, would check your Nielsen data to see what your sales were and a flop would mark you as a bad risk. It filled me with dread at the time when I saw the meagre royalty cheques and decided I was a marked man.

And yet the reality was quite different. Publishers didn’t seem to care and agents never asked. This was true even for Timesplash, which had already been published and failed, and then self-published with, at first, very little success. Self-publishing was something else people had told me would kill a book’s chances of ever being commercially published.

Yet three different Big 6 publishers and three small press publishers talked seriously about publishing it. Three of them negotiated contracts and one of them, eventually, signed.

The moral seems to be, never give up on yourself and never give up on your book. The old rules don’t apply. Things have changed and they’re still changing.

(2) Rights Matter

However, you really have to be sure you have the rights to your work, or you will never be able to re-sell it. After my first failure, I asked the publisher if I could have my rights back (because I intended to self-publish the book). They agreed readily. Publishing in my genre had been an experiment for them and they were as disappointed as I was. I was lucky. Although I had a termination clause in my contract, they let me off. I could still have been waiting for the contract to end so that I could do something else with my book.

It has made me very wary about what rights I sign over to publishers and to make sure those termination clauses are in place. Even when I sell a short story these days, I let the publisher know I will probably want to self-publish it soon and we negotiate on how long any exclusivity period might last.

(3) Publishers are Human Too

Not only through Timesplash, but also with other books, I have had a lot of dealings with publishers, large and small in the three years since Timesplash was first published. And this is what I’ve learned about them: they’re just people trying to run a business.

Like you and me, they find themselves in a world of rapidly changing opportunities and shifting markets. They’re not sure how best to proceed and they’re often open to experimentation and off-the-wall business propositions. Sometimes, the crazy ideas come from them. Sometimes you can see they’re thrashing about trying new things in the desperate hope that they can find a business model that beats the competition.

I tend to get caught up in enthusiasms and I’m far too willing to give new ideas a go. These days, many publishers are the same – to everybody’s detriment. It really is a good idea to step back and ask yourself just how you’re going to make money from the deal you’re so excited about. How many books you can reasonably sell through each channel. What your return will be. What your personal outlay will be (usually measured in hundreds of hours of ineffectual marketing time in my case!) and how quickly you can back out of it if it isn’t going well. You need to ask publishers hard questions but accept that they might not know the answers. We’re all learning all the time now.

(4) Self-Publishing is About Selling

This is something you will have heard from self-publishing gurus all over the Web, so I hardly need repeat it. I knew it before I started self-publishing, yet it still came as a big revelation to me. It’s not about having a blog, or a Twitter account, or a large group of Facebook friends. It’s about publicity, marketing, and ultimately, selling: segmenting your customer base, making the right proposition, and closing the deal.

Many years ago, I asked my wife (who is so much wiser than me) if I should quit my job and run my own business. She said I shouldn’t – not because my ideas were no good, or my business plan wouldn’t work, or I didn’t have the skills needed, but because I wouldn’t enjoy running a business. She was right and that’s why I don’t enjoy self-publishing. It’s a business. You make things, you package them, and you sell them. I can do it. I’ve made a fair bit of money at it (lots more than any publisher has ever earned me) but I don’t enjoy it. Some do. Some don’t.

(5) Editors Should be Certified

As well as working with many publishers over the past few years, I’ve also worked with a lot of editors, including independent ones. And I’ve come to the conclusion that editors should be qualified. They should do a three years degree in editing (not an MFA or an Eng. Lit. degree!) and then take post-grad courses in particular genres. Only then will they be fit to be let loose on the world.

I have encountered many degrees of incompetence in editors – from small presses especially, but not exclusively – and I have worked with just a couple who can do it right, who “get” what you’re trying to do and use their skill to help you achieve it the best way you can. Some editors I’ve worked with have been barely literate. Some were rule-following robots. Some were just not very bright. The one I have now is extremely good and, I have to say, even if I never make a cent from my contracts with Momentum, I’d be tempted to stick with them just so I don’t have to work with poor editors ever again.

(6) An Agent is Only Good for One Thing

Because I don’t enjoy the business side of self-publishing, and because I am generally disillusioned with small publishers, I have decided I only want to be published through big publishers – preferably the Big 6 (or however many there are left now). Small publishers will let you send them manuscripts “unsolicited” but the majority of the big ones still insist on receiving submissions through an agent. It is this function, interfacing with publishers who otherwise refuse to speak to me, for which an agent is invaluable. I simply can’t do business without one.

(7) Friends Matter Too

I think it’s because I’m a chronically shy, introverted type, that I have never really seen it before but people will help you. Other writers will help you. You don’t have to do it alone. In fact, I was never able to do it alone and any success I’ve had is traceable the kindness of other people. Asking for help might seem like the hardest thing in your life (even worse than asking for sales) but I’m discovering that you don’t always even need to ask. People are just that darned nice!

So let me sign off with a special thank you to Joanna for hosting this post.

Do you have any questions about moving to a traditional publisher? Or any experiences of your own to share? Please leave your comments below. 




Graham Storrs is a science fiction writer living in rural Queensland. A former research scientist, IT consultant and award-winning software designer, his published non-fiction includes three children’s science books, over a hundred magazine articles, and more than thirty academic papers and book chapters, in the fields of artificial intelligence, psychology, and human-computer interaction. In recent years he has turned his attention to writing science fiction and has published over twenty short stories in magazines and anthologies.

Graham recently signed a two-book deal with Momentum, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, to publish his time travel thriller, Timesplash, and its sequel, True Path.











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