Selling Yourself As An Author

The Trials and Tribulations of Not Only Being an Author, but a Steampunk Author!

    Written a truly great Steampunk story? And now you just bet you're going to be the next J.K. Rowling, because it's such an awesome tale? You're just positive every editor you send it to will have to love it, because how could they possibly not? Right? So, amidst them all wrangling over which one gets the wonderful privilege of publishing your literary masterpiece and turning it into a movie, you suddenly discover, TA-DA! YOU'VE ARRIVED! Right again?     Well, probably not, that is, most likely, this will not be the case. You see, it just "ain't" that easy to become known as a truly great author. By "great author," I mean here the kind of author whose last name is "Creighton," "King," "Rice," "Rowling," Turtledove, or some such other fabled name. Heck, for that matter, I'm even talking about achieving mid- to low-level author status. None of it is easy to attain, not easy at all!

    Why is this? Well, I'm sure we've all heard the trite phrase "having to pay one's dues." We all know what it means, that we as "artists have to suffer," blah, blah, yada, yada — and all that cliché stuff. How tiresome to hear it again. What a bummer! And the mental image this "suffering" thingy usually evokes isn't really so bad, is it? I mean, just picture the ancient, but rather romantic idea of living on the Left Bank in Paris. Imagine little "you" starving in some rundown garret, freezing cold, and having to use some old typewriter (with one bad key, of course) to knock out in a mere three months' time THE NEXT GREAT NOVEL! But wonder of wonders, you did!

    Hey, it happened sort of that way for J.K. Rowling didn't it, so it could happen for you, too? Well, not exactly. First, there are conflicting stories of how Ms. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book and under what conditions, but the circumstances definitely weren't that romantic, or nearly so quick. Ah, well… it makes for a good literary legend. And although legends help us get through our lives, they are not the stuff of life. Reality is the "real" stuff of life, I'm afraid.

    So, wake up my little muffins! Smell the bitter coffee. Because, "it's a jungle out there," as "they" like to say. Seriously, all joking and kidding aside, it really is a jungle or worse and that is what you as an author must face in order to make it "big" or otherwise, if at all.

    It's no longer enough just to write a great Steampunk story or any story. Those days for authors are long over. Writing a marvellous tale, then sitting back, and leaving it to editors/publishers to sell your work for you is now history. I've said this before, but it still bears repeating. Now you aren't just a writer anymore, you have to be a salesman as well, and a darn good one. More, you have to be a publicist, a personal assistant, a secretary, an editor, a proof reader, and whatever else it takes to break into the writing-world-as-we-now-know-it.

    Why is it so tough? Well, there are thousands and thousands of would-be authors out there, just like you! With e-submissions now common, anyone, anywhere in the world that wants to submit something can, and they do! Combine this with the fact that hardly everyone accepts Steampunk, and that means slush piles are huge and growing all the time for those that do. Editors wade through mountains of the stuff and often will only read a paragraph or two before tossing a story or novel to one side and moving onto the next.

    Then there is the cost-of-doing-business factor. The expenses of producing books in hard print rise steadily even as the market for such novels steadily drops. That's so not good! It doesn't look pretty for publishing as a whole and certainly not for you as an aspiring author.

    E-publishing is helping — it is slowly growing on an annual basis and that's good news for Steampunk authors...well, all authors really. But there are problems with that as well. Many editors won't proofread your work anymore. If they accept it, they leave it up to you to do almost all the editing and proofing of it. They don't have the time. And worse, much less is often charged for people to read your work in an e-book format and this means, of course, less in the way of royalties for you — often much less. E-publishers mostly don't pay advance fees to authors, either.

    Moreover, with Steampunk stories, a lot of work is required. You can't just have a good tale. It has to have a realistic setting for the time period (usually Victorian or early 20th Century), and that means a lot of effort on the author's part to get it "right." This goes for dialogue, as well. Steampunk is all about being "period" in its settings, dialogue, and creation of appropriate characters to fit all this.
What's more, the plot often revolves very closely around the "mechanics" of the society of the times, and technology of the day. Again, this all requires the author to do a lot of research. Not done well, and you, as the author, probably won't get your tale published. Worse, the editors probably won't catch mistakes, but the readers will! And even if you do get the tale published, the reader won't like it, so it won't sell well! So be very careful when creating your Steampunk story.

    And there are so many e-publishing houses coming and going these days that for a would-be author it's a minefield as to which one they should submit a story or novel to. "Mom and Pop" e-publishers fail on a regular basis. And because only a minority of publishers accept Steampunk, sometimes, you have little choice as to which one you do send your story to. It may be you have little choice but to send it to one of the "riskier" publishers. But pick the wrong e-publisher and you can lose the rights to your novel in bankruptcy proceedings, because it is often considered an "asset" of the publisher's. At the very least, your story may be tied up for months, perhaps even years, before you get the rights to it back again.

    Another problem in this area is that some e-publishers will publish almost anything.It doesn't cost much for them to do it, and if even only a few such "bad" novels are sold it is still extra money in their pockets. They "pad" their literary stable this way, as it were. This is just business, it's nothing personal. But this also means there are tons of badly written books and/or stories out there. Readers now must swim through a deluge of such books to find good ones, ones they will like. It makes it that much harder for a good book to stand out in such a crowded field.On top of that, many publishers don't understand Steampunk well, and so don't promote it correctly or simply assign it to the wrong genre on their sales sites.

    So, you say hard print then is the answer for you? Well, as I've already mentioned, hardcover readership is declining, and has been for years. This is a long-term trend, my little cookies. It is going to continue for some time to come, I fear. That's reality again.

    So, here you are, an authorial voice crying in a vast wilderness of writers, unheard, unloved, and so unpaid. What can you do about it? Well, here is an approach that seems to work.
         
    1. First, practice your art of writing. Make sure you truly have written something worthwhile. Steampunk usually requires research. Do it! Lots of it! This is an absolute necessity for the genre. Then,

    2. Research the publishers who might publish your work. Just because they publish science fiction, doesn't mean they publish Steampunk. And for those that do, some prefer dark; some prefer technical or harder Steampunk stories, etc. So dig into it. Make sure you are targeting the right publishers with your work. That's a must. If they want a query letter, look up on the internet how to write a good one. It's amazing how such things can work and work well. The movie "Alien" is said to have been sold as "Jaws in space." The original "Star Trek" series was said to have been promoted to television executives as "Wagon Train in space." (It seems westerns were big at the time, I guess.) If this is true, then your query letter should incorporate this sort of thing. You must sell your work to the editor/publisher. See? Already you're a salesman as well as a writer.

    3. It doesn't stop there, as I've already said. Now the real job begins. You may have sold your work to an editor, but now you have to pitch in and help sell it to the readers. You must market your work. Did you know many editors will "Google" you to find out what you've already done? It isn't enough to send them your resume; they want to know more, as in how big a name you really are, what your track record is. Lots of links to you often seems to equal lots of popularity in an editor's eyes. At the very least, they want to see how and if you are promoting your own work. So make sure if you set up a website, that it reflects your genre well. For Steampunk, get a background that resembles something Steampunk! This website here is a darn good example of just that. It's how your Steampunk website should look.

    4. You must market yourself as well as your work. Editors Google to see if you are marketing yourself, as well. There are many ways of going about this. Firstly, it is imperative you have your own webpage (as just mentioned above). That's another absolute must nowadays. You can also attend conventions; hand out personalized bookmarks, flyers, etc., all promoting yourself. Do book signings. Even buying books and selling them to bookshops yourself is something many authors now do. Reviews of your novel/story help.

    The more and the better they are, the better for you. They generate more links for you if online. So, you may want to send out or inquire of many reviewers and review sites on the internet if they will review your work. Some authors have their book covers designed and paid for by themselves. This is to control the first thing the reader sees, the cover. (You'd be surprised how important that can be.) Steampunk covers, especially, should reflect the book's story. Make the cover sort of tell a story about what's inside the book. The cover must grab the reader, make them want to read the tale.

    Having interviews done is another good way to go. Getting yourself on podcasts is another. Some writers do lectures at schools, libraries, anywhere they can. Some charge for this. Others do it for free just to help promote themselves. There are many ways to market yourself. Some ways will work better than others will for you. I'm into book trailers now. It creates multiple links to my name on the internet, and more importantly, to my work. It does this quickly and very cheaply, exposes my writing and me to many possible readers. Give it a shot.

    For me, conventions are fun, but I don't think they are truly very helpful, unless they are the bigger ones. However, being on panels helps. Other members of panels are usually other authors and — yes — editors and publishers! It doesn't hurt to network with them.

    5. Announce yourself. Let everyone know you are an author! Sign all your letters, emails, etc. with your name as being an author. Include your website address, email address, blogs, and/or book trailer sites, as well. Get it in there. You can even add short blurbs about a new novel or story being published. And do blogs! Get your face and name out there. Do book reviews if you want. You'll learn quickly this way what makes for a popular and good book versus a bad one, believe me! Do a newsletter, online or off, they help to announce who you are, what you are doing, what is available from you, etc.

    See what I mean? You are no longer just a writer. You have to be a publicist, your own personal assistant, you name it — you have to be it. Editors not only expect this these days, many demand it. They see you as a partner in the business of publishing their/your work. So you had better decide right now you are going to be that partner. And, although you may not romantically starve in a Parisian garret while writing a marvellous tome, you will work your tail off, I'm telling you!
Is it a tough world out there for authors? Oh, yeah! And for those devoted to the Steampunk genre, this is even more the case. It's a narrow field, as yet, so you have to work that much harder. The publishing world has chewed up many a promising author and spit them out, and often over trivial things. SO, PROCEED INTO THE PUBLISHING WORLD WITH CAUTION! It's a dangerous place for newbies, and even oldbies.
 
    However, if you do most of what I'm advising here, and if your stories are actually good ones, you'll start to rise in the publishing world. When I first started, I wrote for the lowest paying magazines, anyone actually, that was kind and generous enough to publish me. That got my name out there. Now, I'm getting published in so-called "pro" markets, but it is the low paying markets I owe my sincere thanks to. They are the ones that were willing to take a chance on me, are often more willing to experiment with genres, like Steampunk. And remember, just because they were low paying doesn't mean they had less to lose. Being smaller publishers, for them, that "low pay" was still a lot of money to come up with, proportionately-speaking, compared to their income.

    Am I at the top or even near the top of my profession? I WISH! But I'm climbing steadily, making headway each month and each year. You can, too. My work is being sold more often and for more money each month. You can have that, too. Be positive! Be persistent and persevering, and above all, work at it! Get off your butt and take an active role in marketing your own work and yourself.

    It's not just "publish or perish" anymore. Now it's publish and promote or perish. You can do it, my little minions. I have faith in you. I want to see you all climbing up that ladder behind me (I'll ignore those higher than me on it for now), but remember, if you get too close to me — I kick! Hey, it's an author-eat-author world out there. Yum! Yum!

    Seriously though, stick to it, and you'll get there. That's a promise. Now, if I can just watch out for those above me on the literary ladder trying to kick me off! Ah well… Hey, you! Yeah, you up there ahead of me! Get out of my way, because I'm coming up through like a puffing locomotive in a Steampunk novel!

Views: 149

Comment by Lia Keyes on October 1, 2011 at 11:40am
There's great advice here, Rob, and I really enjoyed the light tone, though some spacing between paragraphs would make it easier to read. Thanks for posting!
Comment by Rob Shelsky on October 1, 2011 at 11:58am
I did try putting extra returns between paragraphs, but they "disappeared" in the final version. Just tried it again, and same thing happened. Is there some trick to it I'm unaware of? I put them in, and the "published" version takes them back out again. I did do the paragraph indents to help in that regard, and they stuck. Any help you can give me in this would be appreciated. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, though.
Comment by Lia Keyes on October 1, 2011 at 12:27pm

What blogging platform did you copy and paste this from? Sometimes the code isn't compatible. I went into the HTML editor and changed the paragraph breaks from </div> to </br> and that seemed to break the impasse. :)

Thanks again for a super-useful and entertaining post!

Comment by dave bartram on October 2, 2011 at 1:33pm

Interesting - not sure about signing yourself as a writer on everything. Could make you look pretty naive. As for a website being a must - I would strongly disagree. If you have written something good enough to snag the attention of a real publishing house then they will help you do all that, and more. Nothing puts me off more than a badly designed off the shelf website. Seen loads of wannabe authors with 'em. Seen lots of people flogging themselves to death on twitter and facebook to try to sell maybe 40 ebooks or something similar, too. I'm sorry, but I think a lot of this stuff (bookmarks?) would just mark you out as a clueless amateur.

And steampunk isn't necessarily about period accuracy, IMHO. You're trammelling the genre into something intensely narrow that is of interest to very few people.

Some good stuff in there too, but a lot of stuff I'd disagree with. Sorry to be so negative but I'm British - it comes naturally.

Comment by Lia Keyes on October 2, 2011 at 1:38pm

I'm British, too, Dave, but perhaps softened by years in the Colonies... :)

Publishers and agents will look to see what kind of footprint you have online before offering you a contract. That is a well-established and documented fact of modern publishing life. Will it stop them offering you a deal? No. But it might impact the size of that deal. 

A website doesn't have to be a fancy affair -- a blog is sufficient, and if you pick a decent template it can look amazing. As with all things, it's the content that really matters, as that brings you followers, and followers impress gatekeepers. 

Comment by Rob Shelsky on October 2, 2011 at 3:18pm

Dave, I'm English by heritage--my grandparents and mother. I lived in Australia as a kid, went to University in British Columbia, Canada, and I travel and stay a month every year in the UK.  My latest story, Lucia's Crusades, a sequel to E.F. Benson's Lucia series, had a great review by the "Friends of Tilling Society" in England last month (they are located in Rye, although in the series, this is the town of "Tilling"). And maybe that's why I have to disagree with you, in return, because of that very background--I'm a pragmatist and realist, as many British are (those, at least, who live well outside of the sphere of those marvelous "dreaming spires" and "ivory towers").

 

This is all about SELLING, and yes, that's all in capitals. If you think some publisher is going to snap you up (and I hope they do) and do all the selling of your book, and all the promotion for you--think again! Those days are gone, my friend, at least for the vast majority of us. A certain sense of superiority as an author is a fun thing to entertain, but the real world of publishing is a crowded, gritty, and tough reality, one that won't countenance such trivialities or personal foibles, I'm afraid. "They" are only interested in real results--meaning profits.

 

And you say that steampunk isn't "necessarily" about period accuracy? Well, just get it wrong, and your fans will show you quickly enough the errors of your way in that regard! Trust me on that one! Or worse, if one is a new writer, they simply may not develop any fans because of this error, which would be sad. Whether necessary or not, research, accuracy, always makes for a better tale. The more "real" something seems to the reader, the more willing suspension of disbelief they are willing to entertain. And that's just so terribly important.

 

As for a website--one of my editors, in fact the one for my next story coming out--said specifically to me that he "Googled me" to find out who I was and what I did. Even employers do this now for prospective employees (Googling, checking Facebook, etc.), so if you think websites don't matter--surprise! They do. As Lia said, templates are now easy to use for websites, and anyone can create, for free, at least a decent sort of website. The important factor here, according to my editor, is that you have that website, however badly designed it may be. This shows them you are actively trying to promote and sell yourself. That's what they want to see from you And like it or not, it all comes down to that, selling yourself as an author! Those authors promoting themselves to sell forty ebooks a month? I wouldn't be so dismissive of them. That's forty more people that know they exist, potential fans who will want to read more of their work, tell others about it, and so it all helps to grow an audience, as any published author will tell you. My publisher, the one releasing my novella and short story in their hard cover anthology, The Awakening, made it very clear to me that they like authors to have a track record, an Internet presence, and much else. They don't like betting on complete unknowns. And unlike horse racing, they rarely are willing to bet on a long-shot.

 

Finally, as an author who is now reaching mid-level status, I can only go by what has worked for me. I do research. I do have websites. I do lots of promotion, as in going to conventions (MystiCon in Virginia is my next one). I have a book signing next month in Atlanta promoted by the publisher. Alastair Reynolds (that great British SF author), is also in the same anthology. And although I may not become a millionaire by my writing (although I'd certainly like to do so), I now make a comfortable living at it. So, I think I can honestly say I'm drawing on experiences that can work. Take it for what's it worth. If the advice is of value to you--fine. If not, just please disregard it. Perhaps others will listen.

Comment by dave bartram on October 3, 2011 at 8:07am
Ok, I'll put it differently. I have yet to hear of a publisher saying, well, you're book's ok. Not brilliant but it's ok. BUT, you've got a brilliant website and and active blog so I'm taking you on... What I'm saying is where it might be helpful it isn't going to make the difference. If your book is good enough, it'll have a chance of being picked up. But if it isn't, then having a web presence isn't going to make the difference. Ny opinion, of course. I respect what you're saying, and I'd like to think you're right, but I'm not sure.
Comment by dave bartram on October 3, 2011 at 8:09am
And it's not that your advice isn't of value. It's clearly based on your experience and I respect it and you. You're taking the time to share your experience to help others, which is brilliant and never to be disparaged. It's just my natural skepticism having seen may people struggling with self promotion and getting no-where fast.
Comment by Rob Shelsky on October 3, 2011 at 9:18am

Dave, let's just say you have a book that is under consideration, with both pros and cons to it, at least in the publisher's eye. It's a book that might make decent money for him--might... Chances are, your book is not the only one seen in this light by that same publisher. He'll have other manuscripts, undoubtedly (and as an editor, I know this to be true), that are just about of the same quality as your book. So which one will he choose--the unknown author, or the one(s) with a track record and/or good Internet presence and following? I'm betting he goes with the latter.

 

Again, as a submissions editor, when I find several stories, all of which are equal in most other respects, I do tend toward the one by a noted author, or an author with a following and/or "name" or Internet presence. They simply are more likely to sell better than a complete unknown. It's a variant on the Principle of Occam's Razor. When all else is equal, pick the one mostly likely to sell better. That's the publisher's credo, and always has been, really.

 

Analog, for instance, an old and respected SF magazine, makes it so that almost the first thing you have to mention in your manuscript (at the very top of it, right along with your name, address, word count, etc.) is whether or not you are a member of the SFWA (the prestigious Science Fiction Writers of America group). They want to know right up front if you are well-known and (in their opinion) "good enough" to consider reading your work with a thorough eye. SF editors freely admit in various articles that they give more credence to stories by SFWA members (rightly or wrongly) and it does sway their decisions in cases that are close ties in other respects. Get it? If I can get this one point across to you, then I'll be happy. Your background, track record, achievements, Internet presence all help your career as an author.

 

Here's the cold hard truth; if you sent me your story, and I felt it just as good as several others were, but no better, I'd Google you to find out if you have any real "presence." No websites and no blog, and only a few hits would definitely not work in your favor with me! I've coined a phrase: "If I'm not on the Internet, do I really exist?" For most publishers, as an author, one would not. Again, all things being equal, I'd choose the author with the biggest Internet presence and/or background. They would simply (probably) sell better than you. Not to mention your complete lack of having such things, any Internet presence, would tell me a lot about how willing (or not) you are to cooperate with me as the publisher in helping to sell your work. It's hard enough to push a book, let alone have to push its author, too. That's all I'm saying.

 

And yes, you've seen many authors struggling, and will continue to do so. And you'd better be willing to struggle, too, because there are many more authors than there are ones making any money at  the craft, I assure you. Persistence and exposure are the keys to success. And frankly, if you aren't willing to "struggle," to be in "the game," then you won't ever win, of that I can assure you, as well. We live in a highly competitive world, and those that refuse to compete will just stay on the sidelines and watch. They won't be "winners." And just writing a good story isn't enough these days. Heck, lots of people are writing good stories! They just don't often get published...

Comment by dave bartram on October 3, 2011 at 12:41pm

All interesting points. And thanks. But as for struggle. I am pretty familiar with it, thanks. I think the difficulty I have with this whole paradigm is that it tells people that by endlessly blogging and having a website and signing your name as 'writer' and so forth that you have a presence, that you are known. You haven't and you're not. Doing this stuff is not the same as being 'known'.

And I think that suggesting you don't have a website 'says a lot' about how much someone is prepared to engage is a nonsense. Its an inference. And inferences are often wrong. 

People talk about building a platform. That's fine. But a platform has to be built on something. 

Now please don't think am  am 'anti' anything. I have a whole raft of domain names registered around my book and self. When (and if) I have something to build a platform on, I'll build it. And it won't be on wordpress or blogger.

Do lots of people write good stories? I've been moderating and assessing writers' work for a website for a long long time. And my conclusion? Most people don't write good stories. Of the people who try it, very , very few, write good stories. that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of good stories out there. But of the proportion of stories written I would guess very few are of a publishable standard, although their authors would probably think they are.

Probably another very hard truth to swallow.

Again, just my humble. And, as an aside, all things are never equal.

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