Writing For a Living, First Principles

When you are starting out, many authors hope that they will get a big advance right out the gate. That’s natural. You need time to write, and it’s a lot easier to make the time when you have some money to live on. In fact, I see writers all of the time who write half a novel or a proposal and hope to sell it. Don’t do that.

The problem is that the publisher can’t trust a beginner to write a decent book. Hell, they can’t even trust an old pro. Even writers who have fifty novels under their belts will hit a book that gives them trouble. In fact, a few years ago I had a huge bestselling thriller writer who called and asked if I’d ghostwrite his next book. I was shocked. At his level, I had no idea that he would consider a ghostwriter.

But let’s get back to you. So the publisher can’t trust a new writer to write a good book. Unfortunately, too often a new writer, even a good one, will get an idea for a book and tell a publisher, “I have the greatest idea ever. This book is so much better than anything that I’ve done, I want three times as much money for it as I got for my last novel!”

The author is excited, and perhaps rightfully so.  The novel might turn out great. But far too often the author is just excited—or maybe in debt—and the book doesn’t come off as great as promised. Or it doesn’t get finished at the time promised. So if the publisher got charmed into paying big for the book, the publisher loses its investment.

Publishers can’t do that. They can’t pay you big money for a book you haven’t written. So here is one of the first principles of writing: If you want to get paid more money for a book than you’ve ever made before on a book (even if it’s your twentieth), write the book before you try to sell it.

If you try to write a great novel and fail, the publisher will have the manuscript and will know that you failed. In fact, an editor might even be able to suggest ways to fix it. And the publisher won’t lose money.

On the other hand, if you succeed at writing the great novel, the publisher knows two things: You can write a great novel, and it is already done.

Having the book done is the key. When a publisher takes a book to market, they have to do a number of things. They have to edit the book and create the cover, but they also have to advertise the book before the sale. These advertisements are aimed at the bookstore owners, and almost always are done through what is called a “catalog.” The publisher will make up an ad for your book and put it in the catalog. Then the publisher will have their sales reps go to the major accounts personally and show them the catalog. The publisher may solicit cover quotes from critics and other authors to substantiate their opinion that this is a great book. They may need time to create special display stands to put in the stores, or to run advertisements in popular magazines. They might want six months to get pre-orders on your books so that when it goes on sale, it comes out with big sales numbers and hits the New York Times bestseller list.

All of this pre-positioning work takes time—a year or more.  And that is why publishers are so “slow” to get books out.

Now, many indie authors are fond of the idea that they can take a book, put it up on Amazon, and have a book on sale tomorrow. Heck, I like that, too.  I just dropped the price on some thirty short-stories yesterday and the sale prices went into effect within hours.

But indie authors are learning that even if you’re an indie, there is tremendous value in garnering pre-sales, and you shouldn’t launch a book on a whim. You have to plan six months in advance and build up your pre-sales before the launch. That way you can establish a high sales “velocity” in your first weeks out, and thus get the attention of the readers.

This idea that you ought to write the book before selling it was brought home to me years ago by another author. He was with a large publisher who decided to discontinue their science fiction line, and suddenly he found himself without a publisher. We talked about his problem, and he decided to buckle down and write six novels over the coming year and try to sell them. He did it, working full time at his day job and writing at night. For a year, he didn’t get a single bite on a novel.

Now, his first few books had sold for roughly $10,000 each for paperback rights, and at the end of a year he suddenly got offers from three different publishers on his new books, but to his surprise, the lowest offer on any of the books was $30,000. If memory serves me right, a couple of the books fetched double that. In surprise, he asked one editor, “Why are you paying so much?”

The editor answered, “Because we know the book is good, and we have it now.  You don’t realize just how rare that is. Most of the time, when a good author promises to turn in a novel, we have to wait two or three years to see if it comes in.”

This is the trick: write your novel, turn it in, get paid the big bucks. Then write another one.



I will be teaching a master class writing workshop at Fyrecon this June in Layton, Utah. I’m also offering a special for Fyrecon. Get the Writing Enchanting Prose workshop there for only $350–a savings of  $150–if you use the code: EnchantedFyre19. You can register here.


I will also be teaching at SpikeCon in July 3, also in Layton, Utah. Learn more here.

Keep an eye out for two upcoming writing workshops. Writer’s Peak July 19-20 and The Plot Thickens Master Class September 18-21. More info on MyStoryDoctor.com.

Million Dollar Outlines is $6.99 on Amazon Kindle and free with Kindle Unlimited! Learn how to outline a novel and become a best seller. The lessons taught in this book are invaluable to have. Get it here.

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