Writers in the Storm

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March 16, 2022

Things I Wish I Knew Before I Published: Part III

by Lynette M. Burrows

Image from above a manual typewriter looking down at a man's hands on the type writer for the post things I wish I knew before I published.

Being an independent author-publisher isn’t for everyone. I chose that path, but my path is mine. You must choose your own path. If you are weighing your options, this “Things I Wish I Knew Before I Published” series may help. Part I and Part II discuss big picture issues to consider. This is part III, the last post in this series.

Things I Wish I Knew About Rules 

The advice you can find about the “rules” of writing and publishing goes from one extreme to another. Some say there are no rules. Others give you a list of rules. 

Traditional Publishing

When you consider traditional publishing, remember that these big publishers are corporations and they have both public and more private rules. They call their public rules “submission guidelines.” Often those guidelines are about how to format your manuscript. 

The harder to find or see rules are those common to corporations. Certain departments handle certain things. One publisher may tolerate stories that include guns or sex scenes. The next one won’t. Often these corporations do not share internal policies such as risk tolerance or political leanings or their alignment with causes you care about. 

Even the editors you submit to have rules. They don’t call them rules, yet they have certain expectations. They expect stories to be entertaining, to progress from beginning to middle to the end. Each editor has genre expectations and life events that influence their interpretation of your story. Some editors are flexible and open to having their expectations exploded by a skillful author. Others will not be.

What can you do? Know what’s important to you. Research the publishers and editor you’d like to publish your work. Ask questions of authors, agents, editors, and librarians. Can’t do it in person? Try social media.

Don’t be so eager to be published that you sign your first contract without knowing what it means to your book and to your values. Decide which issues are a no-deal for you in advance.

Image shows a digital female character peering into a maze which is how I felt when there were things I wish I knew before I published.

Rules in Independent Publishing

You may get the impression that there are no rules in independent publishing. You’d be wrong. There are tons of rules. Amazon has a set of rules. So do Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Draft to Digital, and Ingram Spark. There are cover sizes and images they will and will not tolerate on covers. Genres they will and will not allow on their sites. Advertisers have rules, too. Those are a tiny part of the rules associated with independent publishing.

While independently published authors don’t have to contend with corporate editors, we have to please the readers of our genre. Readers have expectations and those are their “rules.” 

There are also the expectations or rules we impose upon ourselves. Sometimes, independent author-publishers impose harsh, unrealistic, unsustainable rules on themselves. 

What I Wish I Knew About the Rules Before I Published

The anonymous “they” say that you need to know the rules before you break them. I wish I’d understood the unsaid part of that advice. If you break the rules, there are consequences. Sometimes, the consequences are that the editors and readers love what you did. But if you break too many rules and expectations, you may alienate some editors and readers. Your book may not sell.

As an independent publisher, it's up to you to understand the rules and what consequences may result if you decide to break a few.

Things I Wish I Knew About the Writer’s Life

No matter the publishing path you follow, you are a writer. A writer’s life is not as advertised. Hollywood films set up expectations that writers solve crimes or have exciting adventures. Magazines and other media hold up the rags to riches stories of fabulously successful and wealthy authors as something all writers can become. 

Hollywood vs. Real Life

Image shows a woman's hands holding hundreds of dollars on the left and a man pulling out his empty pockets on the right.

While it depends on what you call adventures, few writers get much in the way of real-life adventure. Many of us do some traveling associated with our writing, but it’s rare that a writer is a successful detective or devious murderer or a terrified kidnap victim.

Most of the time, we sit at our writing device of choice and write. If we aren’t careful, we develop physical limitations because of too much sitting. Most of us self-isolate. It’s nearly impossible to get into the creative zone and socialize at the same time. 

It used to be very unlikely for a writer to earn a living. Thanks to independent publishing it is less rare today, but for every Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, there are thousands who do not earn enough to break even.  

The Get Real Numbers

Getting numbers specific to fiction books can be difficult. In July 2006, Publisher’s Weekly reported: 

— in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen BookScan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies. Those blockbusters are a minute anomaly: only 10 books sold more than a million copies last year, and fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000.

Keep in mind, the Nielsen BookScan does not gather statistics on most independently published books. If you’d like to see statistics from 2020, Chris Kolmar has compiled an informative post.

But don’t let the numbers scare you. Independently published books that don’t go out of print may sell fewer than 1,000 copies per year for many years. In the long term, also called the long tail, the book may earn out and make the author money. 

What I Wish I Knew Before I Published

I wish I knew how much I would love it. I work way more than I ever did at my 40+ hour per week regular job and it doesn't feel like work. If I had known, I would have published sooner. But all anyone can do is make the best possible decision based on who they are, what they need, what they want, and how best to achieve those things. I hope this series of blog posts has helped you see your path a little more clearly. 

What is the best thing about your writing life and publishing path?

* * * * * *

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows loves coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all show up in her stories. She writes thrilling science fiction about characters challenged to rise from who they are to what they can be. 

Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could have been or may be. In My Soul to Keep, Miranda will fight the tyrants, even if they are family, even if it means her death. Book two of the series, If I Should Die, will be published in late spring 2022. The series companion novel, Fellowship, and all her books can be found wherever books are sold online.

Lynette lives in the land of Oz where two Yorkies have fooled her into thinking she’s the one in charge. You can find her online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @lynette

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Leave a Reply to Anna Chapman Cancel reply

24 comments on “Things I Wish I Knew Before I Published: Part III”

    1. I respect your desire for proper grammar and thank you for sharing. Please consider, there may be reasons for the words I chose.

    2. Hi Anna. I've deleted part of this discussion because it wasn't productive, and it smacked uncomfortably close to bullying, which we do not condone here at WITS. I'm sure that wasn't your intention. Sometimes we all have tough days.

      We do appreciate any and all of our readers who take the time to join the discussion in a manner that's respectful to our authors. Our contributors work incredibly hard to create articles that assist others and resonate with our readers. We respect that sometimes a post doesn't resonate with one reader or another. As Margie Lawson says, "if it's not your cookie, we don't take offense if you just let that one go by."

  1. Hi Lynette!
    I love this encouraging post. As I tip-toe towards my own journey of partially self-publishing, it's great to hear how others 'love it'. I appreciate your thoughts on the topic and hope to hear more!

    1. Hi Kris. Thank you. I'm glad you find it encouraging. Best wishes that your journey is successful.

  2. Lynette, as someone who is staring at the wall of self-publishing, this series is very comforting. It is a formidable wall that sucks up a ton of time and energy. I really appreciate you helping the rest of us scale it!

    1. Thank you, Jenny. I'm glad to know this series of posts have comforted you on your journey. You've got this!

  3. Great post, Lynette. I've been enjoying this series.

    I'm pretty lucky in that I don't have to earn a living wage with my writing. I'm self published and have never even queried an agent or traditional publisher. That was never my goal. I just wanted to write, share my stories with others, and continue learning. If I earn a buck or two, so much the better.

    That being said, there are still expectations I have to meet in order to accomplish these goals. You've done a good job laying out a solid path and pointing to the potholes that might sallow up our successes.

    1. Thank you Eldred. I appreciate your comments and am glad you've found your publishing path. The scary and wonderful thing about independent publishing is that everyone climbs their own mountain. May you climb as high and as far as you desire on your journey.

  4. Lynette, thank you so much for this series. It takes a lot of courage to step into this space and be vulnerable. As someone who discovered that having a gun on the cover of a book can change the visibility of the book and your advertising...I know that moment of wishing for knowledge!!! One thing that I'm so grateful you've shared is the actual book sales numbers. I work with a number of first time authors and when they get "average" sales, they have a disconnect with how good those numbers are. I've seen statistics for indie books even lower than what you've quoted here, and from being out in the industry I think these numbers are important. We all hear stories of future authors spending their grocery money on publishing, expecting to score big once the book comes out. That drop of the roller coaster after publication can be a career ending free-fall if they don't have context. I hope that many authors are spared helped by this informative series.

    1. Thank you, Lisa. Yes, the numbers are very important to understand. I was fortunate to have learned to watch those numbers early in my career and didn't spend my grocery money--but man is that tempting to do when you believe in your work.

  5. Thank you for a most enlightening post, Lynette!

    I've been thinking about having an audio book made for my next book. The article you included by Chris Kolmar has convinced me that is the way to go.

  6. Hi Lynette!
    Thank you for this realistic perspective. Like many careers, writing looks so shiny from the outside. It's always best to understand what you are really getting into, and then deciding if you still want to jump in with both feet. I did and haven't looked back. After 30 + years as a pharmacist in a purely science based-world, I love being able to explore my creative side. I'm fusing both worlds together in my writing and loving it. I may not have the proverbial beach house as my writing studio, but I love what I do. I look forward to your next post.

    1. Thank you Miffie. Combining your knowledge of science and fiction gives your fiction a unique verisimilitude. WTG. You know, I don't have one of those beach houses either but my workspace turns into fantastic locations via my imagination. I'll bet yours does too.

  7. I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone at WITS for taking the time to educate me on the craft of writing. It is very much appreciated.

    1. Mary, it's gratifying to know posts by the team are helpful to you. We've all benefited from someone else's knowledge and are happy to pay it forward. Thank you.

    2. You are so very welcome, Mary! This blog is our way of giving back to the writing community and paying forward all the mentoring and advice we've been given in our own writing careers. Thanks for taking time to comment!

    1. Yes, you do. If you want to market your work, I recommend you do some research into the genre and tropes and incorporate them as much as possible. But write on! Do what you love. And thank you for commenting.

  8. It is very informative article I learned a lot after reading your writing. I like your information very much. I hope more posts like this. Thanks.

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