Claire King


We’re in the Business of Selling Dreams.

Posted on: November 19th, 2013 by Claire - 17 Comments

I want to talk about becoming an author. About publishing a book.

So you’re a writer. You get up early in the morning and you write. You drop the kids off at school and you write instead of doing the hoovering. You commute to work and you write on the bus. You stay up late at night and you write. And your dream is that one day, hopefully very soon, you will see your work published. In a book. A book that you can hold in your hands. If that’s you, I’m talking to you.

If what you dream of is your book being available in ebook format only, I’m not talking to you. Because you know that there are many options now for doing that. And personally I know very little about them, and you too have Google and Twitter. You will find your way.

But back to you, the dreamer, the one who wants to hold the solid block of pages in your hand and see your name on the cover and the printed words inside that you created and pulled together and spun into a story to be told to thousands of readers. You, who wants to be paid for your work, perhaps even for writing to be your actual job. You would like to make a living from it. Yes, well I’m really happy you’re here. Because that’s what I want to talk to you about.

Without money

If you are anything like I was, you’d be delighted to hear that somehow there is a shortcut. That agents can see through a first draft of a manuscript to the dazzling novel you know it eventually will be. Or that publishers right now are trawling the electric interweb for rising stars to pull under their wing and lead through the golden doors of literary fame and fortune. Or how the publishing landscape is changing and that now the gatekeepers have left and you are the most powerful person in the publishing supply chain, if only someone could explain to you how that works. You might even be willing to pay for that advice.

Well, my advice – which is free and you take it as it is – is that as far as I know there are no shortcuts, and you are certainly not the centre of the publishing world. Sorry. It’s not you. If I were to go out on a limb and say who I think does occupy that position, thinking about agents, publishers, bookshops, online retailers, authors, editors, and all the others, I would have to say that the most powerful person is likely to be…the reader. Maybe. But in any case it’s not you.

You are the writer, you are the author, you are the person who will create a story, and you will send it out into the world and you will ache with every rejection and bad review (and later you will soar with the offers and the delight of five fat golden stars). Or maybe you have thick skin or pure genius and that won’t happen at all.

But in the meantime I’ll tell you what you *are*. You are a market. Because of that ache for something that is out of your reach, because of your dream of something that is hard to achieve. Because there is something you really, REALLY want. Because of that, there are people out there ready to sell to you.
They are not there to sell you the magic formula, because if they had it, we’d all have it, and we’d all be hitting the jackpot, riding our fat advances to the top of the Sunday Times best-seller list. Oh but wait…
No. But what they are there for is to sell you back your own dreams.

They will tell you there are no guarantees. They will not promise you a publisher, or an advance, or literary prizes. But they will tell you that by buying something off them, a product or a service, you will be doing the right thing, putting yourself in the best position to publish that book, to be that person, the best-selling prize winning author who can give up their day job and set off on tour, gathering movie and foreign language rights as you go. They may throw in a lavish drinks reception or a star studded evening mingling with agents and publishers. Lovely. But the champagne is on you.

Do they have something that is worth your money? It’s your job to work that out. These people are in business. One of the many businesses that are set up to take advantage of the hungry market of aspiring authors. Legitimately. They are not there to take on the establishment, or create a new publishing paradigm, all for one and one for all. They are there to make money. For some that’s all it is, although of course some, often those run by well established writers, also have the very best of intentions and really want to help you succeed.

So if you are thinking of making money from writing, if that’s one of your goals, then before you pay out anything, *anything* to advance your career as a published author, be that writing courses, editorial services, social media publicists, conference fees, subscriptions to writing websites, publishing services or anything that wants your money, take yourself seriously. Make a business plan.

It doesn’t have to be complicated:
1) How much do you expect to earn?
Do you hope to earn a side-income or to give up the day job entirely? Do some research and find out how much an average debut novel earns, and an average second novel. Look into different genres too. Look at self publishing versus the traditional route. Look at advances and royalties and do some maths. Work out the probabilities.
2) How much are you willing to invest?
Do you have money to spend? If so, where is it best spent? Improving your craft; making new contacts; paying to be published, building an author platform on social media or buying a decent desk chair? Taking some paid leave in order to write, perhaps? What would each of those things give back to you and how would they help you to succeed?

I’m not suggesting at all that writing is all about making money. If you’re like most writers you do this because you love it. Because you can’t not tell stories. And sometimes we can buy things that help us along, even if it’s just a copy of Writers’ Forum or a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. But as soon as the question of handing over your money to other people comes up, and you’re tempted, think about it. And whatever you do, don’t become part of someone else’s business plan just because they talk a good talk.

That’s makes them the salesman, and you the punter.

17 Responses

  1. Brilliant post, Claire. Well said. And that’s said by someone who does workshops, when asked – but I always say – only go to a workshop or a course, if you know the tutor is doing something you want to learn. It’s like cabinetry, this stuff. Do you like the way I put that cupboard together, that armoire? Then fine, come and listen, watch. And pay me for the learning. But don’t come if you don’t know whether I have something to teach you!

    • Claire says:

      Thank you, Vanessa. I’m really glad you came by to comment. Spending a weekend on a writing retreat with you as our coach was one of the very few times I have spent money on my writing (the rest has gone on paper, ink, competition fees and books!) and I consider it to have been money very well spent. If I had the money to do that kind of thing more often I would!

  2. Mike Clarke says:

    A very salutary post – and one that makes a point that’s rarely made so articulately — that it might be more profitable to tap into the market for writing advice and feedback than to actually take a risk on publishing books.

    There are very few other vocations where an investment in training is less guaranteed to pay back. For example, it might now be very competitive and put you £50k+ in debt to train to be a doctor in the UK but you’ve got reasonable confidence you’ll end up achieving your objective if you do.

    As the post makes clear, there are many well-intentioned services in the market that offer genuine and useful help to writers but it’s not in their economic interest to turn away potential customers (in fact, part of their appeal may be that they’re much more approachable — for a price — than agents or publishers).

    However, one possible benefit of the sometimes maligned academic courses, like MAs, is that there’s some accreditation and independent scrutiny involved and that acceptance criteria on the courses is therefore subject to some sort of quality threshold. Similarly, there are independently moderated examination criteria, as there are with Creative Writing courses, such as the very good Open University courses.

    It doesn’t mean these will guarantee you any writing success (nothing can) — and educational organisations are keen on sniffing out this profitable market — but at least there’s some quality assurance in place and you get a recognised qualification.

    I do start to wonder about the publishing industry at a macro level if there’s more money to be made by coaching and training people to be writers than in the traditional business of risking capital to actually publish them.

  3. Claire says:

    Thanks, Mike.
    I suspect MAs stand apart in some way, because academic courses are designed to help change the way you think and strengthen your critical faculties, so wherever you go afterwards you can take that with you. And the qualification need not be directly relevant, but if you wanted to it could lead you into related professional fields.

    I think we have to make a distinction between those parts of the publishing industry where the author is a ‘supplier’ and the profit model involves persuading readers to buy books, and those where the author is the consumer. They are different industries, even if they try to persuade us otherwise.

  4. Well said, that person! Whatever the dream, it’s always tempting if someone offers to help make it come true. If we’re willing & able to pay, there is good advice, but one has to research and be picky. Many years ago I completed a postal writing course and went on to succeed in the magazine market. Later a fiction course just kept telling me ‘Fine. Now send the next chapter.’ More recently an online short story course went really well and set me off on what is my new jam. So, two pay-off courses out of three.

    You are so right that authors are a market, with others ready to sell to us, and equally we ourselves are there with ‘goods’ to sell. We must be careful what assistance we buy in to help us to sell them. Thank you for sharing your interesting take.

    • Claire says:

      Yes Jacqueline, exactly. Whatever the dream there will be entrepreneurs targeting the dreamers. Some of them genuine, and some of them cynical. Some of what they offer can be valuable and, as you’ve found, sometimes it isn’t at all. One of the great things about communities of writers online is that we can share our experiences and hopefully sort the wheat from the chaff.

  5. Will Amado says:

    Too many people attend writing courses without knowing what they want from the experience. If that is you, then you are not taking yourself seriously. It is no good knowing the things you should have asked the day after the course. Do your research, select your course, prepare, prepare, prepare. Then speak up on the day. If asked to submit something in advance, make sure you understand what feedback you want and ask specific questions of the reviewer. ‘A nice piece of writing’ may be good for the soul but doesn’t take you forward.
    Critique what you want to achieve as a writer as closely as you critique your writing or that of a fellow writer. Everything is in the detail, even so, you need to know the route from A to B and, as Claire says, there are virtually no short cuts, and that reinforces the importance of maximising every step you take.

    • Claire says:

      That’s a great point, Will. I have a feeling these days that our culture leads people to expect things to be handed to them on a plate, which can lead to a lot of wasted money and disappointment later on.
      I know very little about writing courses, having never been on one. I wouldn’t rule it out in the future, but I would be most likely to go on a workshop with more experienced writers whose blogs and articles I have followed and appreciated. Or whose novels I have loved.

      • Mike Clarke says:

        One of the most constructive aspects of a course is the workshopping and collaborative element. Through doing various courses I’ve had feedback from the different perspectives of many talented and perceptive writers (both other students and the tutors). Virtually all of my novel has been critiqued in this way, which has slowed down its progress but has undoubtedly made me a better writer.

        What’s expensive about writing advice is paying for other people’s time — on the basis of taking 2 or 3 longish days to properly comment on an average length novel — and even at minimum wage levels that’s well over £100 before any other expenses or profit are factored in.

        • Mike Clarke says:

          [Previous comment submitted before it was finished.]

          I’m surprised how much time other writers give each other for free (often on courses but also via Twitter, blogs and other networks) and it’s really valuable to have writing friends who’ll give opinions on manuscripts, especially those who are particularly in tune with the style of your writing.

          As you say, some people might see the growth in the writing coaching industry as justified because they see creative writing for its own sake as a leisure industry. People spend money on gardening and model railways and similar leisure time pursuits — why not creative writing as a way to pass the time? However, if that’s the aim then it’s disingenuous to suggest that these motives will result in writing careers. This leisure v work argument is probably at the root of the ‘should writers give their work away or do things for free’ argument.

  6. Marcus Speh says:

    Enjoyed your passionate post! Especially the central point about there not being any shortcuts. Beyond that I’m thinking less and less about the market, or trying to, and more and more about the product itself. I still believe that any superior product will virtually sell itself. That has always been my experience — and it seems to me that at least in parts and insecurity on the side of the author may be responsible for becoming a victim of that industry you’re talking about. Your distinction about the two industries (quite possibly with different types and qualities of authors in them) is spot on.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks Marcus. You’re absolutely right, if we as writers should focus on anything it’s the quality of what we write. Until that’s sorted, everything else is irrelevant.

  7. tu says:

    Good post, really good points, esp about being the seller or buyer in two separate markets. It all seems to depend on whether writing is a hobby or a profession. I do both and it’s a very different mindset, to the point of being two entirely different activities.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks, Tracey. And it does seem peculiar to writers, perhaps because so many people idealise a career as an author? You make a great point that writing as a hobby and as a profession can co-exist.

  8. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. Love your quote – ‘without money we’d all be rich’. I liked your directness and poignant questions that makes the reader stop and consider a writing career – straight and also encouraging. I believe that becoming an author is like setting up a business, it requires commitment and a business strategy.
    I’m a new visitor to your website and enjoying the reading. I’m an aspiring author, working on the launch a writing career.

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