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!