Ego and ignorance: The writer’s two worst enemies
Lately, I’ve been doing occasional posts on what may sound like the seven deadly sins for writers. I did one called “Greed” (July 31, 2018) in which I talked about what can happen when writers get greedy, are overly protective of their work, and lapse into sheer stupidity that’s often based on ignorance and failing to understand the ramifications of one’s actions. When a writer trademarked the work “cocky” in regard to the titles of her romance novels. By failing to properly research the purpose of trademarks and their limitations, she created a fallout that harmed her reputation and caused grief for several other writers.
Then in my September 3, 2018 post I did a follow-up on the Greed one that I titled “Ignorance and Stupidity,” based on Kris Rusch’s article on “Writerly Cluelessness.” The examples there again involved what happens when writers fail to educate themselves on the business of writing, in this case how agents work.
What these two posts and the associated articles illustrate what I consider the two worst enemies of any writer: ego and ignorance.
Before you think that I’m suddenly into bashing writers and accusing them of stupidity, please hold off judgment while I explain what I’m going for here.
We as human often make our worst mistakes by our failure to educate ourselves on how things work in the world. When it comes to writing, Kris Rusch constantly emphasizes that if you are serious about writing, you must treat like a business, not a hobby. You need to understand how all aspects of the writing business work. More than a few writers, some big-name ones, have learned hard lessons by not educating themselves or by allowing other people (such as agents) to run things and assuming that these people will have the writer’s best interests at heart. And it’s not just writers who have suffered. We hear stories all the time in the music industry how unethical agents and managers have bilked their clients out of large sums of money.
Much of this could be avoided by being educating oneself and not letting ego get in the way.
Many non-writers look at big-name authors with awe and believe in their hearts that these authors are wealthy and make tons of money from their books. This misconception is what lures some would-be writers to delving into writing. We hear of six-figure advances on one book or a series of books and our eyes light up. We believe that if we can get a publisher that we too can join the ranks of these wealthy writers.
Where the ignorance comes in is that we don’t know that very few authors reach the level of J. K. Rowling with her Harry Potter books. We look at authors like James Patterson whose estimated yearly earnings are $90 million a year.
Here are the facts:
AVERAGE AUTHOR’S SALARY FOR ONE BOOK
Pay close attention to that first article and the quote: “These numbers are for freelance writers and authors of books, though, and novelist income is harder to pin down…”
When you see from the second article how LITTLE a beginning author can expect for an advance on a novel, you’ll begin to understand. Those five- to seven-figure advances apply to a small proportion of MAJOR novelists, and most authors will never come close to those numbers.
Absent this information that most of the public and new writers seem unaware of, this is where the ego part rears its head. Would-be writers believe that all they have to do is sit down and actually write a novel. After that, they’ll find a publisher, their writing career will take off, and the money will come rolling in because they are now an AUTHOR. And authors make a lot of money.
Those who are a bit more realistic won’t expect money to roll in, but they do believe that their books will be out there on shelves in bookstores, supermarkets, and +Walmart.
All of this is born from misunderstanding and the failure to learn the truth (or perhaps unwillingness to want to come to terms with the truth). Our egos don’t want to hear that simply writing the novel guarantees nothing. We don’t want to hear that for every success there are hundreds and thousands of books that fail to sell more than a handful of copies.
Another aspect to ego is the critique. The last thing our egos want is another person telling us that the fantastic novel that we have just penned is nowhere near as good as we think it is. Some would-be authors will simply reject such criticism and only listen to the positive comments (usually from friends, family, or those who really have no idea what good writing is). Good writing can be learned, but if we’re not willing to hear that we still need to learn, then we’re going to be disappointed with the outcome of our hard work. And writing IS hard work.
In the post I did on November 19 that I said came from a presentation I’d given to a local writers’ group, I asked a few questions before I started. One question I asked was How many of you have recently researched the current state of traditional publishing and know what changes have happened in the past 10+ years?
As I recall about half of the 15 or so attendees raised their hands. I can’t say for sure, but I would be surprised if all of those who raised their hands had really done much in-depth research.
If you intend to be an author (and I clarified in last week’s post that “author” means a writer who has been published), then you cannot afford to let the minutest part of ego get in the way. Most established authors will tell you that even after many years of writing they are still learning. If you believe that you’ve reached a point where you can’t learn anything more about writing, then that’s your misguided ego talking. I’ve been a serious writer for nearly 30 years, and I am still learning. I learn new things about writing and publishing nearly every day.
Ignorance is an even worse enemy. If you expect to survive and thrive in today’s publishing environment, then you cannot afford to be ignorant of ANYTHING. You need to follow the blogs of knowledgeable people like Kris Rusch, who has been in publishing for 30 years. You must learn from those who KNOW, not listen to those who only think they know.
You need to understand how copyrights work today. Many of the new writers that I meet have no clue. if you plan to look for a publisher, you need to understand the details of publishing contracts and that you may need to consult an attorney before signing one. You need to understand what a publisher will actually do for you, not what you believe they do. If you believe that you HAVE TO PAY to have your book published, then you do not understand publishing at all and you definitely should not be thinking of getting your book published until you do understand. This applies to whether you’re planning on a career in writing or simply publishing one book.
If you’re an indie author and plan to publish your own book, then you need to know what’s involved: What are reasonable costs for the services you may need like editing, formatting, cover design. You need to understand that publishing companies who expect YOU to pay for their publishing services are often only interested in your money and couldn’t care less about you as an author or whether you book is really any good or successful. They’ll take your money up front and if your book actually goes anywhere, they’ll take a cut of your profits.
You need to explore many different sources of information. Never trust a single source unless you know for certain that the source is truly trustworthy and knowledgeable. There are too many misinformed individuals out there who will offer advice based on their own ignorance.
I guess what saddens me most is how many new writers simply do not bother to do the research and end up disillusioned or getting taken for their hard-earned savings. Those who see the world of publishing through rose-colored glasses need to take them off. Some are still going by what they knew (or thought they knew) to be true fifteen or twenty years ago. Things have changed since then, and it’s not hard at all to find out this information. Remember the line from the TV show The X-Files: The truth is out there.
Let’s take a concrete example. You hear of an author getting a $100,000 advance on a book and think that this is fantastic money. Here’s the truth. First, you’re forgetting that the IRS will take about 30% of that. Second, advances are never paid out all at once. They’re usually paid in 3 installments: one when the contract is signed, another when the book is approved for publication, and the last when the book is published.
From the time the contract is signed until publication may be 2-3 years. That $100K advance will be split over 2-3 years. If you have an agent, the agent gets 15% off the top. So, after the agent’s cut, you’re down to $85,000 before taxes, split over 2-3 years. After taxes, you’ll have about $60,000, and you’re looking at receiving only $20,000 or $30,000 a year in those 2 or 3 years. So, that $100,000 windfall turns into a very meager yearly income. But only for those couple of years.
If you expect to keep up that low yearly income, you need to keep writing and hoping that subsequent books get published AND that they can earn that same advance. But remember that only top-selling authors can hope to garner such advances.
Now, I promise that I won’t do any further posts like this one for a while, but before I end this one, I do want to share a sad story. I recently ran into a woman who was approached by a publisher to re-publish a book that she had previously published. Her reaction, as you might expect, was one of ecstasy. A publisher wanted to publish her book. On the surface that sounds great. But ego and ignorance got in the way. I doubt that she ever wondered how this publisher learned about her book in the first place.
That alone should have raised an immediate red flag. legitimate traditional publishers have more than enough books to choose from in the submissions they receive (and reject). They don’t have time to go trolling for any others out there.
I’m sure many of you see where this is going. The publisher who contacted her was Toplink Publishing. I’d never heard of them, not that I claim to know even a fraction of all the small publishers out there, but I am familiar with the more prominent ones that have been around a while.
What kind of publisher DOES have the time to go trolling for books to publish? One of those Vanity/Hybrid/Assisted-publishing Publishers looking to bilk some starry-eyed authors out of their money.
The woman told me that she’d looked over the contract and that it looked good to her. I can guarantee that she had no idea of how to read it properly or how to spot any further red flags it may have contained. My next question to her was “May I ask how much you have to pay this publisher to publish your book?”
Before I reveal the answer (and I can guarantee that your guess won’t be anywhere close to what she told me), she did say that it was for their one-year package and that they claimed they would be with her at various book events to help promote her book (and I doubt they’d be paying for her transportation to get there). If you go to Toplink’s slick website, you will find no mention of costs of their publishing packages. You have to inquire.
The really sad thing about this story is that there are ample warnings out there on Writer Beware about Toplink. I Googled “Toplink publishing.” The first result was their website. The second and third search results were about the Better Business Bureau’s issues with them, and the fourth search result was from Writer Beware. I don’t see how this woman could have missed those warnings unless she didn’t bother to check. Ego—the fact that a publisher was interested in her book—supplanted any desire to wash away any thoughts that this publisher might be trying to take her for a ride.
I did not ask if she had already signed the contract. I should have, but I was too focused on trying to save her from making a mistake that she would come to regret.
All right, are you ready for the reveal of what this “publishing package” was going to cost her? You’re probably thinking in the neighborhood of $2000-$4000, which is I find typical of these companies. One of my author friends had considered one such “Hybrid Publisher” until he saw the $3000 figure he’d have to pay. Someone my co-blogger Scott knew paid $5000 for a publishing package.
I thought $5000 was high, but that was a bargain compared to Toplink’s price of $9000!
That’s a lot of money to throw away. Even with an excellent book, there is little chance she will come close to recouping her investment. And that breaks my heart. I can only hope that she had not signed the contract and decided to walk away from it.
Ego and ignorance are a writer’s two worst enemies. Be aware of them and don’t fall prey to them, and maybe you’ll come out okay in the end.