7.12.2010

The Absolute No-Bulls**t Guide To Writing, Publishing And Selling A Book: Introduction And Chapter 1

The Absolute No-Bulls**t Guide To Writing, Publishing And Selling A Book

Introduction and Chapter 1: 90% Of What You Need To Know, In One Chapter (you are here)
Chapter 2: Writing Your Book 


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Synopsis (Or, "TL;DR [Too Long; Didn't Read]"):

This thing is long. I don't blame you if you don't want to read the whole thing. Of course, if you're that sort, you'll never, EVER finish writing a book, much less publishing and selling one. You're probably the kind of person that thinks life is so unfair and you never get your shot and the world hates you and blah blah blah. Guess what: life isn't fair, but it does favor those who DO THEIR RESEARCH AND THEN WORK REALLY HARD. So you really should read my whole guide, you lazy bastard. But if you don't want to, here's the synopsis:

No one from a big publisher is going to come knocking on every door in your neighborhood looking for that one perfect person with that one great idea that should be transformed into a book. Guess what - you don't need them to, thanks to the Internet. Get off your ass and write your book or shut up about it. Don't let anyone stop you. Don't sit on it, paralyzed with fear that it'll be hated or stolen. Create a book you love, and let it live. Self publish it. Tell everyone you know, but never spam or annoy people. 


Also, it's a lot of hard work. A. LOT. You need to be completely in love with it, because it takes a LOT of commitment and time. So if you're the sort that only reads TL;DR's, seriously... Just stop now. Go play World of Warcraft. 


If that doesn't do it for you, watch this: 




(can't see it? Click here)
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Pre-Introduction (Or, "You've Been Warned")

Before I even get started on getting started, there's a few things you need to know before you read this guide to writing, publishing and selling your own book. 

First, I use a lot of poopy words. That's me. It's how I write. If you read past this point and get offended, I'm not sorry. 

Second, this is a free, plain-as-day no bullshit guide to writing, publishing and selling your book. It is not a hand-holdy, flowers-and-rainbows self-empowerment guide meant to convince you your shit doesn't stink and that everyone in the world has a great book in them and blah-de-blah. If you're looking for someone to rub your shoulders and whisper nice things in your ear about how great you are and how great your book (which doesn't yet exist) will be and how many copies of your book (which still doesn't yet exist) you will sell... Go to the book store and look for a section probably called "how-to" or "writing" or possibly even "self-help" and spend $24.95 on it. Cause this ain't it.

This is the guide which tells you the truth about the whole thing. This guide is free because no one pays for the truth. It doesn't sell; bullshit sells. Anyone selling you your dreams is after one thing, and it's not your well being.

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About The Author (Or, "Who The Hell Are You And Why Should I Care?")

I'm Joe Peacock. As of the time of this writing, I've written two books and maintain two moderately well-read blogs as well as a fairly successful freelancing career.

My first book, Mentally Incontinent (2005), was written on the Internet, in plain view of anyone who wanted to pay attention. I wrote five stories per chapter, and asked my readers to vote on the one they liked the best. The winner became a chapter in the book. After 12 rounds, I self-published the book and sold directly to customers who wanted to buy it. The writing process took about three years, and the publishing process took about four months.

My second book, Mentally Incontinent (2009) (same title, but a totally separate, new book) was also written on the Internet. However, it was sold to and published by Gotham, an imprint of Penguin Books. The writing process took about three years (again), and the publishing process took about 14 months. 

I am in a unique position to write this guide, in that I've released books through both self-publishing and through a traditional publisher. I don't know everything, but I know what I went through and what I've seen other writers go through. I am not in the slightest degree famous. That said, I pay my bills through writing and have a customer base which buys my books. I am very happy with this. My books have also led me to other opportunities, such as freelancing with AOLNews and other outlets who pay me for my writing. 

It took about ten years to get to the point I am at right now. That's not to say it'll take you ten years. Most of you won't decide the investment is worth the effort and will go back to pouting while doing what your boss at your job tells you to do. Some of you will work harder and faster than I did and get your books out quicker (and likely won't choose to write five stories per chapter and have people vote on which one they like, thus cutting your writing time by 80%).

I don't presume to know everything about writing. In fact, I know precious little compared to the most successful authors and the great writers of our time. But I know what I went through, and I know what it takes to write a book, stick it out there, and make it work.

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Introduction (or, "Finally, he's getting to the point")

Let's cut the shit.

Writing a book is a lot of hard work. Some people are deluded into thinking that it's not. Well, I'm here to tell you it is, and I have a TON of other author contacts who will confirm this. In fact, the only people for whom writing a book isn't hard work are the ones who hire ghost writers, like Sarah Palin and Paris Hilton (or just about any celebrity who decides to "write" a book, except Steve Martin - he probably writes his own stuff, and I'm sure he'll tell you it's really hard work). 

Once you get past the very hard work of writing a book, it's even more hard work publishing it. And even harder work still selling the thing. And there's one thing I've discovered in life to be absolutely true beyond a shadow of a doubt: most people don't like doing work. They will decide to fail, and they'll blame every single condition in the world besides their lack of desire to work hard. "No one gave me my shot!" "I couldn't get an advance on writing the book, so why bother?" "No agents picked it up, so I gave up trying to get it published." 

In this day and age, there's NO excuse for not writing, publishing and selling your own book your own way. Well, actually there are two: laziness ("I couldn't find time!") or greed ("I couldn't get an advance on my idea, so I didn't write the book!"). The internet has made it possible to not only write the thing, but publish it and sell it to people. Only those who think they deserve to be paid BEFORE they work hold out for a publisher these days. Are you one of them? 

I hope not. I sincerely hope you're like me: someone who simply must write. Someone who sits up nights thinking of ways to have people read and be affected by what he or she writes. Someone with stories that must be told, regardless of whether or not anyone wants to hear them. Someone who will NOT be held back by people who are either too jealous or too lazy to support you.

If you're that person, then I'll make a deal with you: follow this guide, and you'll have a book out and for sale. And when you do, I'll buy one from you. Email me and let me know when it's coming out, and I'll buy your first copy. Deal?

This guide is a challenge to you as a writer and aspiring author. I want to remove every single excuse you might have as to why your book doesn't exist yet and see what you do once the path is laid before you. If you get through this and still can't get your book together and out -- and I mean this in the most loving, honest way possible -- you need to find something else to aspire to. 

When I first started, I wished to hell someone had written something like what I'm writing now. Not a "How to self-publish your book" guide or "how to write a book" - those existed. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a great book on the process of actually writing a book, and Dan Poynter's Self-Publishing Manual is a fairly great book about the process of self-publishing. 

However, both of those books (and just about every book on writing and self-publishing) take way too long to get to the point, which they ultimately miss: If you want to write a book, you'll write a damn book, and no one will stop you. If you want it to exist outside of a word processing document (or hand-written manuscript), you'll figure out how to print it, and again, no one will stop you. If you want people to read it, you'll figure out how to sell it.

I did. If I can do it, anyone can. 

My job here is to pop the hot air balloon of delusion and keep you from making the same mistakes I did, as well as mistakes I was fortunate enough to not make myself but saw others make. More than that, I'm going to give you a playbook which, if you follow, will result in a book that exists, is published, and can be sold to people.

Ready?

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Chapter 1: 90% Of What You Need To Know, In One Chapter

I'm going to save you a tremendous amout of time and money in just one chapter.

I get a LOT of questions about writing, creating books, publishing, and marketing them. The vast majority of them are at least three steps ahead of where the person should be. "How do you manage a book tour?" "How much of an advance should I ask for on my book?" "How do you get published by Penguin?" "How do you sell [x] number of copies?"

To butcher a phrase by Dave Sim, asking these sorts of questions without first establishing that you can even write a book is like asking Tiger Woods what putter he uses on the 7th hole in Augusta before you even buy your first set of clubs. You're doing one of two things: grossly misunderstanding the process, or looking for shortcuts. Cool down, relax, and start at square one.

First, a list of things you should never, ever do, no matter how desperate you feel at the moment:

NEVER pay an agent to read your work. No legitimate agent charges a reading fee or submission fee or any other sort of fee. Legitimate, working agents who have relationships with publishers and sell manuscripts on behalf of their clients make their money by having relationships with publishers and selling manuscripts on behalf of their clients, PERIOD. Absolutely never ever no matter what should you pay an agent. They collect when they sell your work. 

NEVER pay a publisher. Take very special care when selecting a method of publishing your book. If you're being published by a publisher (who handles printing, distribution, marketing and sales), THEY PAY YOU. You do not pay $395 or $5,995 or even $1 to be published. Those are called vanity press, and they're pretty much scams. You can do exactly what they do for a fraction of the cost by self-publishing. When you self-publish, you should pay for nothing more than the costs of services. If your self-publishing efforts lead you to an all-in-one package shop (like lulu.com), look at the services they offer, then go price them out on your own and decide if the overhead is worth whatever time or effort you're saving by using them. More on this in the Publishing portion. 

Don't quit your day job. It's very romantic to think about waking up when you feel like it, pouring a steaming cup of coffee, sitting in front of your computer and creating your next masterpeice. If you're James Patterson or Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, it can be pretty much like that. But note that those people are making enough money off the residual sales of their books that they can pay the house note, buy groceries, keep the lights and gas and water on... Yes, you could be the next Nicholas Sparks and get a million dollar first book deal. You could also win the lottery. The odds of both are about equal. How many lottery tickets have you bought? Did you win?

Don't be an idiot. Work hard nights and weekends and make your book happen. Or, do be an idiot, whatever. It's your life. I'm not your dad. But don't email me crying about how my guide didn't make you rich and famous even though you cut off your only revenue stream to follow your dreams. 

Don't edit the book yourself. Yes, you must learn the process of self-editing. This will largely end up being grammar and spelling mistakes, because when you read your own words back to yourself -- at least in the beginning of your writing career -- it's going to sound 100% fine. They're your words. They play in your brain all day long, so they sound exactly right. Hire someone to edit your work, preferably someone with two very distinct traits: a keen grasp on the English language, and the ability to hurt your feelings for the greater good. Because it does hurt, at least at first. But trust me, a good editor makes the difference between a readable book and next month's recycling bin material.

Don't trust critiques from family or friends. Your friends and family (hopefully) love you. People who love you don't want to see you hurt, and critiques - if they're true - hurt. At least at first. And if you want to get better, you need critique. Honest critique. Seek their opinion, but do not trust them to critique your work. Join a local writers group, or hit the online community.

Don't listen to the naysayers. This one's important, because it's absolutely going to be the biggest hurdle you face in writing, publishing and selling your book.

Some people are going to be very jealous of you, believe it or not. The mere process of writing a book is something a LOT of people aspire to, and you're doing it. People will scoff. Sometimes, it'll come out of left field from someone you love and trust. A friend or family member's look of shock and horror when you announce you're writing a book will leave scars on your heart. I have several.

Don't let them stop you, ever. If they love you -- really love you -- they'll support you.

Don't let them hide behind the mask of "critique" -- Note the tone in which something is said. "You can't write a book" is much different than "You need to work on [x]," where [x] is some aspect of your writing. People are assholes. They stand on the ground shooting arrows at the birds in the sky. Soar.

The greatest gift someone can give another person is empowering them to follow their dreams. If someone in your life is holding you back, decide now whether you want to be their pet or run free.

Don't use your book as an excuse to stop doing everything else. All that stuff I just said in the last few paragraphs is 100% true. That this doesn't mean that you're allowed to stop doing your share of the laundry and then yell at your wife because she's holding you back when she calls you on your bullshit. The world keeps turning, and you're still on the hook for anything and everything you agreed to do before writing your book. Want more time to write? Finish everything you're responsible for early.

Don't sign SHIT without having a lawyer read it first. It's worth the money. Find a lawyer in your county, ask them if they'd be willing to help a starting author out. You'll pay a few hundred bucks. DO IT. Don't use LegalZoom - not that they suck; they're actually fantastic for simple business filings. But you want someone you can punch in the face if they screw up when it comes to your intellectual property. Same goes for an accountant if / when you need one.


Things I wish people had told me when I started out:

  • You've got a LOT to learn. I'm ten years into this and there isn't a day that goes by where I don't learn something new (usualy by mistake) about the process of writing. I can get you most of the way toward having a book, but the actual process of being a writer? That's a lifelong thing. 
  • 4000 books will fill an entire garage. 
  • If you decide to fill your garage with 4000 books, seal your garage door, lest it rain and flood and ruin about 300 of them. 
  • Friends make awful employees. If you choose to hire a friend as an editor, envelope stuffer, or any other job, know right off the bat that at some point, you two are going to fight over how something should be done. If you fire them, you're not firing an employee, you're firing a friend. Either accept it, or cough up the dough for an employee.
  • The realistic daily goal for shipping books is about fifteen an hour, per person. After about  four hours, fatigue begins to set in - stop for the day, lest half your envelopes come back because the address was illegible. 
  • Shipping on time is hard, but it saves you a LOT in make-up copies and apologies and refunds. 
  • Rejection letters suck. It doesn't matter how much you prepare to get one, they suck. Period. What you need to know is that agents and editors at publishers get THOUSANDS of submissions a year. Some get thousands a month. You are one of several thousand. You didn't cut the mustard for that particular person at that particular moment during the brief scan they did of your work. Take it any harder than that, and you're reflecting and wallowing in self doubt. 
  • The return on investment for writing my first book was about $1.20 an hour. I seriously cannot stress this enough: Love it or don't do it. It might pay off later, after it's done. Don't even bother looking for money before or during the process, unless you're searching the cushions of your sofa.


Things people did tell me, but I was too stubborn or stupid to pay attention:

  • You never, ever have it all figured out. The moment you think you do, look up, because there's an anvil of reality hurdling toward your head. 
  • You're not clever, interesting or even remotely unique when you break established laws of writing. Sprinkling exclamation points in the middle of sentences or using one-sentence paragraphs 200 times in one story isn't hip or cool or rebellious. It's obnoxious. The point of breaking convention is to make a point. Do it when you have a point to make, or don't do it at all. Anything else is just abusing your reader for the sake of your own cleverness.
  • Buying books about writing, working on your outline, designing your book cover, writing character cards, arranging post-its full of plot items into lines... None of this actually qualifies as working on your book. It feels like work, but it's not. Work begins with line one, word one, and ends with the very last word of your manuscript. PERIOD. Everything else is masturbation. Not that it's useless -- it's a fun and worthwhile endeavor, and sometimes it's totally necessary. It's just the stuff you do for yourself that you should never, ever talk about in public if you respect yourself. "I worked on my plot through-lines today" sounds like "I totally played with myself" to everyone within earshot. Line one, word one. 
  • Keep a notepad with you at ALL times. You will not remember that clever turn of phrase when you get home or when you get out of the shower. You can use a voice recorder if you like, but in my experience, writers are self-conscious enough as it is without having to hear themselves say things aloud that aren't quite fleshed out. But if it works for you, go for it - just know you can't use it in the shower. I use Field Notes notepads - they're cheap, very durable, and come in three packs, so I can put one by my bed, one in the car, and one in my bag for when I'm on the go. In the shower, I keep a dry erase board above the shower nozzle.
  • Write every single day. It's just like the gym - taking one day off makes it much easier to take two days off, and before you know it, you're three months off practice. Three months off of writing doesn't hurt your technical ability to write, but it REALLY screws with your ability to shut off the inner voices telling you things suck. 
  • If you're writing a blog or publishing your work on a schedule and you stop writing, you're also risking losing readers in addition to messing with your internal processes. It's tempting to think "They're not paying me, they get what they get when I give it to them." They ARE paying you, in time and attention. Those two things are worth 100x the price of what you'd charge for your writing. By establishing a schedule, you've signed a social contract. You owe your readers material to read, when you say you'll deliver it. If you don't pay up, they'll break their end of the contract. Sure, they might love you enough to forgive you some of the time, but eventually, if you bend the reed of trust too many times, it'll snap. You need them much more than they need you. 
  • Never, ever publish anything at four in the morning. Nothing good ever happens at four in the morning, no matter how good it feels at the time.
  • Ask other writers, especially established authors, questions about the process, but make damn sure that none of them sound like "can you get me a book deal?" As long as you're asking honest questions, the vast majority of them are more than glad to talk through it with you. They were once you, after all. And if they're assholes, just let them be assholes. 


The rest of the process is covered in the next four chapters. Anything else is pretty much trial and error, or covered the laws established by the municipalities governing our land. Or, I just forgot to put it in here.