So You Want to be a Writer?

Writing for oneself and blabbing away is easy.
Writing for a mass market is tough. I don’t know how publishing houses work in Malaysia but this piece by Marilyn Henderson is worth the read especially if you are thinking of being the next multimillionaire writer comparable to the likes of Dan Brown and etc.
Thought this was a good eye-opener in view of the Nanowrimo-ing going on this month. (And yeah, why am I not joining NanoWriMo? I tried. For 2 years. Somehow, Nov is the worst month for me. My holidays come in between and I lose that zing. And then I lose track of it completely.)
A bit about Marilyn Henderson… she is a novelist, coach and manuscript critic. She also has other good advice for wannabe writers too here.
by Marilyn Henderson
Copyright (c) 2005 by Marilyn Henderson
That editor has had the manuscript of your novel for three months
and you haven’t heard a word. There’s no excuse. Or is there?
Most writers have only a vague idea of how a publishing company
works. That knowledge can be very helpful to your career as a
writer, however, and the sooner you understand how the process
works, the better. These few insights will give you a more
realistic picture and a better appreciation of the other side of
the desk.
Here’s how the big publishers whose names you’d love to see
printed on the spine of your hardcover book operate. Smaller
publishing houses follow scaled-down versions that fit their size
and staff.
When an editor likes your novel, she (it could as easily be “he”,
of course) must present the book at the weekly editorial meeting.
Editors, possibly the publisher, and representatives from the art
and sales departments attend the meeting.
Your editor has about two minutes to “pitch” the book she is
recommending. Like the plot statement or log line you develop to
answer an agent or editor’s question, “What’s your book about?”,
her pitch is aimed at rousing excitement in those at the meeting
so they agree the company should publish the book.
Everyone at the meeting has a vote. If there are objections, such
as “Not another serial killer” from the sales department, or
“We’ve done enough swastika covers to start World War III” from
the art department, she does her best to refute them. She may
have persuaded another editor to read the manuscript and support
her at the meeting. If she makes the book sound like a winner and
refutes any objections, others may want to read the book before a
final decision is made. The decision includes how much to offer
the writer as an advance, and other terms of the contract.
Now the editor writes the letter that has you jumping for joy, or
she calls your agent and discusses it with him, and he calls you.
You, of course, accept.
The advance offered for a first novel by an unknown author is
usually $10-15,000. Not a lot for the many months you labored
over the book, granted. But look at what the publishing company
has already invested on your behalf: personnel time (mailroom,
editors and other employees who took part in the decision
process), plus the advance they are now offering you. Sure, you
and your novel are worth much more, but from here on, you need to
prove it.
Now the editing process begins. Once the contract is signed and
counter-signed, a slot is determined for the book to go to press.
Unless there’s a special reason the book should be ready to sell
quickly, the release date is usually a year to 18 months from the
date the contract is signed, so the editing and various other
departments can fit it into their schedules.
Your editor reads it again for content and marks anything she has
a question about. A copy editor corrects mistakes in grammar,
spelling, repetitions, changes in earlier facts (someone’s blue
eyes turning brown) and other discrepancies. She may answer some
of the editor’s questions or attach notes asking you to clarify
or cite sources for information. She creates a style sheet to
keep track of characters’ names and how you spell them, their
physical traits such as eye and hair color, specific locations,
You get this “corrected manuscript” next. You read it and pay
attention to the corrections so you can become familiar with the
proof marks and use them. Any marks you make on the corrected
manuscript must be done in a different color ink than the editors’
marks. If questions are attached, you answer them, either by
making the change on the manuscript or attaching your reply to
the editor’s note. You do not remove notes that come with the
package, since the editor needs them for reference.
For example, I once got a note from a copy editor saying she had
consulted a professor of Spanish to verify a line of Spanish
dialogue I had my detective say to his wife. The professor
suggested a rewrite in grammatically perfect Spanish. I sent a
reply to the editor saying my LA cop was a Mexican-American
street cop who had worked his way up through the ranks and would
not talk to his wife of ten years in perfect Spanish when she
woke him up early to respond to a homicide call. They would
communicate in an easy, natural way as they had for more than ten
years. I added that I had asked a Mexican-American friend to
translate the English version of what I wanted my detective to
say into everyday Spanish, and my own Spanish was good enough to
know he hadn’t changed the meaning. The editor left the line as I
had written it.
Since your book is now in production, you must return the
corrected manuscript within the time limit set, usually two to
four weeks. The book goes back to the editing department and is
corrected to include the changes. Today, all publishing houses
are computerized. The document is corrected on the computer and
proofread carefully, since it becomes the source of all future
copies. An ISBN, Library of Congress number and other identifying
information are added to the back of the title page. The author’s
dedication and other introductory material are put in place to
complete the package. The printer runs the entire book off for a
final proofreading.
You receive a copy of the new print-out or “galley proof”. The
pages are now book-size and set up exactly the way they will
appear in the finished book. They are usually folded in
“signatures” for easy handling. You proofread the galleys one
last time. You are not allowed to make story or arbitrary changes
at this point. You can, however, note typos that were missed
earlier by the proofreader, changes that weren’t picked up from
the first edit, or errors that may have been introduced when the
last edits were made. Your book is now in the hands of the
printer, not the editors. Most houses have a strict limit on
changes that are introduced by the author (i.e., not the
typesetter’s fault), and you may be charged for any beyond a
certain amount.
While all this is going on, the art department is creating the
cover art. This is shown at editorial meetings, but you don’t get
to see it or have any input.
The sales department has also been at work. Your book is listed
in the monthly new releases brochure. The lead book for the
month, the one getting promo money, is on the front cover, the
second lead on the back cover. The rest, and some earlier
releases, are inside. There may be a small picture of the cover
along with the ISBN, retail price, and a brief paragraph about
the storyline. An order form is included in the catalogue.
These are sent to bookstores, wholesalers, distributors, etc. for
ordering purposes. Company sales reps also carry them so they can
discuss books with buyers.
When the scheduled print run date of your book arrives, the
presses roll. Boxes of your finished book are stacked on pallets,
ready for shipment.
Books are shipped before the announced launch date so stores have
them on the shelves, ready to sell, when the book is announced.
If you’ve ever wondered how popular authors hit #1 on the
bestsellers list the moment their books are in the stores, the
answer is the big national lists are based on the number of books
shipped, not those already sold to consumers.
Chains place initial orders for all their stores. The size of the
store as well as the expected popularity of the title determines
the number of books ordered. Barnes & Noble, for example, has
three categories, A, B and C. “A” stores are the largest, “C” the
smallest. Initial shipments are based on category.
Your advance is exactly that, an advance. The company is betting
your book will sell enough copies for them to earn that money,
and more, back. It’s an advance against the royalties you will
earn, which means you do not get another payment until it earns
back the $10-15,000 for the company and thensome.
Some writers mistakenly assume that the publishing company gets
the 90% of the selling price left over after your royalty is
paid. Not quite. Matter of fact, not by a long shot.
In addition to office, printing and warehouse expenses, several
other people take their cuts off the top, which in this case is
the selling price. The publisher ships books to the distributor,
who “sells” them (with return privileges) to the wholesaler (at
another discount), who sells them to bookstores and shops with
return privileges, and the bookstores and shops sell them to
customers at the cover price. The stores make only the percent of
difference in price between what they paid the wholesaler or
distributor, and the amount they got for the book.
Don’t even try to do the math on that; it’s mind boggling and
means your book can sell for a lot of different prices depending
on who buys where. Just as the publisher’s profit on each sale is
based on the actual amount they receive for the sale, so does
your royalty. Instead of 10% of the $20 printed on the cover,
your royalty may be whittled down to less than a dollar per book.
Yes, that’s right. Royalties are paid on the selling price the
publisher receives. [Editor’s note: In some cases you may be
able to negotiate a royalty rate on “selling price” rather than
on “net.” The percentage will usually be lower, but the actual
return may be higher.]
You generally won’t get your first royalty statement until the
book has been out for 18 months. Even then, the publisher may
hold back as much as 40% against returns since a large number of
books may still be in the payment or return grace period extended
by the wholesaler or distributor.
If paperback rights have sold, the mass-market edition usually
comes out about this time. You also should have your second book
finished and be ready to start the process all over again.
If you participated in marketing and promoting the first book,
and it sold well, the same house and editor will probably accept
and publish your second one. But never forget that publishing is
a business. If a book doesn’t sell through (pay back its advance),
you will have a harder time selling the house your next one.
Hard as all this seems, it’s worth it. Being published by a major
house means prestige for you and the book. It can be a big step
forward in your career. It isn’t an easy way, however, to break
into the ranks of published authors.
Come to think of it, there is no easy way. You just have to keep
learning and writing, and be willing to work your way up by
selling to smaller markets first, if necessary, while growing
into the big time.
If you dream about seeing your book in the #1 spot on those
bestseller lists, knowing as much as possible about the
publishing business will help you learn how to market and promote
your book successfully and build your career.
Marilyn Henderson is a novelist, coach and manuscript critic.
Her book, “Writing A Novel That Sells: Beyond the Basics” helps
writers learn the advanced skills of novel writing to become
published authors. Visit her web site at:

2 thoughts on “So You Want to be a Writer?”

  1. now thats, well, a WEE bit discouraging!
    but yes, i definitely agree with your point regarding the simplicity of writing for oneself and babbling away. in fact, im probably an expert in that!
    i do have dreams of doing small time freelance kinda writing though, at times i think its good to do something with what you are interested in.
    at times i just wonder if theres a place for that in this country.
    and even if it doesnt become something remotely mass, at least you know its out there for someone to digest and ponder over and most importantly learn from.
    impact on even one person, i guess thatll be the drive.


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