Chapter four in a series on Book and Art Business 101 wherein I show how the solid logic of art business sold me on self-publishing. If you’re too busy for the whole series, download your copy of my Cheat Sheet for Book and Art Business 101.
When I went to college, I found myself loaded down with logic and rhetoric and grammar classes at a school that didn’t teach math or science.
They wore their lack of the sciences as a badge of honor. The curriculum did appeal to the rebel in me, but it completely turned off almost all of my redeeming sides that delighted in both math and science.
Ironically, it was the perfect environ for the literary part of me to flourish: most of my talents in math felt rerouted in every class but Koine Greek — the language of logic (think: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle). Through a very skilled and very sassy and very old Greek grammarian, I finally came to understand English grammar and began that first semester writing a novel I would finish by the end of my freshman summer. Soon afterwards, I began researching how to get published like the T.H. Whites and Walt Whitmans and J.K. Rowlings of the world.
I wanted to know then what you want to know now: where and how to sell what you write.
I bought a Writer’s Market (all writers should — as someone who made money selling work to The Poet’s Market, it would be disingenuous to say I don’t want you to have one; that said, you need one). Through the Writer’s Market I began researching query letters and agents. I found an agent I really wanted — I was eighteen — and submitted a very poor draft of an irredeemable novel to an otherwise formidable businessman.
Great combo for success, let me tell you.
This wasn’t my first submission. My first submission was a paid submission to a poetry compilation the summer between high school and college (or sometime around there). I remember crying when the American Academy of Poets didn’t want my compilation of high school poems. Why? Why wouldn’t they want 45 Flowers? I cried mostly because I lost forty-five dollars, probably the only bit of that moment that had any poetic resonance. Forty-five dollars was the equivalent of an entire day’s work at the radio station (my first job) and I learned immediately the first rule of professional publication:
If you want to make money as a writer, you do not pay to publish.
(And yes, that includes anyone who profits off of your work but does not pay you, such as the Huffington Post — more on that in another article.)
The Writer’s Market — any Writer’s Market — will teach you this. I don’t know how many people I’ve met who have been reading my work for years and still, somehow, haven’t paid attention to the dozens of times I’ve mentioned this: the Writer’s Market will teach you.
I’ve said it I don’t know how many times on this blog, in talks, in conversations. Still people miss it, so let me say it again:
The giant, regular, Writer’s Market from the current year will teach you what to charge as a copywriter, an editor, a freelance scribbler of any type.
It’ll teach you how to submit, where to submit, what to submit. It’ll teach you ways of generating revenue you’d never dreamed of generating.
It’ll also show you how to waste money.
A lot of it.
And it’ll at least warn you not to, assuming you read the articles up front. Here’s the thing: it’s easier to make money off of writers than it is to make money off of writing. Easier as in quicker for the same reason it’s easier and quicker to make money writing copy for Verizon’s CEO than it is writing poetry that rebukes him. Tearing down or exploiting the world takes half the time that building up and protecting it takes.
Am I saying everyone who makes money off of writers is bad?
Well obviously not.
For one, all writers are readers so every novelist and screenwriter, in part, makes money off of other writers. For another, there are a great many people like Therese Walsh of WriterUnboxed who genuinely try to help storyweavers get a leg up in this world. But for every Therese, there’s the literary equivalent of a dude selling bum watches out of a trench coat to any sucker who will fork over cash. Some are fee-charging agents (as opposed to the common commission-charging variety). Some are literary magazines that charge ridiculous fees for submissions, subscriptions, and sometimes even contributor’s copies. Some are inventing quack remedies and hack gadgets that, if you’re lucky, will deliver on a fourth of their promises. For Home Shopping Network odds, that’s pretty good, but for most writers, there’s not a lot of extra capital lying around to be blown trying to make up for the loss created by simply refusing to work hard. Then again, your average cat lady hoarder shopping HSN doesn’t have a whole lot of extra capital either, so it might be a wash. (I added that last line in there with a sense of love and loss.)
All of that to say, there’s a general rule I started with that has served me well. And it’s stated above: if you want to make money as a writer, then by definition you do not pay to publish.
“But what about this sweet competition that looks good on a resumé?”
That’s all fine and good if you’re reinvesting profits. But here’s the thing. Many, many competitions out there exist simply to make money off of desperate writers. And just like on poker, when you’re desperate you can lose a lot of money very fast. That $10 you earned? It’s going to be worth $100 someday if you invest it right. And the first rule of investing is don’t lose.
If you absolutely, positively must submit to that pay-to-play contest or competition, then I suggest this:
F = 10% x W
- F = the fee for said contest
- W = the money you’ve made writing
If you make $250 on the sale of an article, go ahead and spend $25 of it submitting to the Missouri Review’s contest. It’s basically the same allocation I’d recommend you make in your retirement portfolio: 10% for high-risk investments. Because make no mistake, ANY time you pay-to-play in the writing world, you’re taking a high risk. I almost guarantee you won’t ever see that money again: you’re playing a lottery with a smaller pool than powerball, but it’s still more of a lottery than a meritocracy. Over time (read: years and years and years) you get better at recognizing the savage wolves from the merely starving dogs, but starting out you will be in no position to make that kind of judgment call.
Oh and by the way, if you do blow that $25 on a contest or a reading fee (why would you ever?) and you don’t get your money back (surprise, surprise), that doesn’t mean you get to do it again with the remaining $225. That $225 is the 90% you’re supposed to be reinvesting in sensible investments that are guaranteed to pay a return 9 times out of 10 — I’m reminded of the bet about hitting the squirrel with a nail gun from The Liar’s Club chapter.
Reinvest it in what?
Things like a more efficient printer or a competent editor for your next story or just time off where you can spend hours uninterrupted. What a gift for a single mother, eh? You’ll need to earn that $25 back in order to spend it again. And I recommend earning it and then at least another $25 before you spend it.
If you can’t play by those rules or something very similar, then you’re not serious about doing this writing (or art) thing as a business. Desperate leads to stupidity. Don’t be desperate: you can make a long play here, so make it and stick to your guns. The verbs in the subtitle of the Writer’s Market are sell and write. Where and How to Sell what you Write. For a very, very long time, those should be your only two concerns. Write a lot, read a lot, and when you have a backlog, that’s when you should submit. Sell a fraction of what you’ve written. Reinvest those profits so that you can write more and write better.
Once more, and with feeling: spend money to make money only when you’re spending out of money you’ve already made.
Don’t have time for the whole series?
That’s okay, I made you a…
Here’s our outline for upcoming posts:
- The Gateway Drug: Poetry
- Does Fiction Lie? — The Liar’s Club
- Where and How to Sell What You Write
- From Daydreams to Written Dreams
- Rejection Slips
- Any Money Makes a Professional Writer
- Quarterly Assignments
- Making Good Money… in a shadow career
- Kinfolk and Advocates or “How to Build a Platform”
- Draconian Contracts
- Author Earnings
- Succeeding for Others
- Blaze a Trail All Your Own
cover image by plofiz