Clare B. Dunkle

The Business of Novel Writing

Clare B. Dunkle's basic facts about book publishing

Lizard in the Stuttgart Zoo

There is all the difference in the world between writing books for pleasure and writing books to earn a living. When you write for yourself, you are worlds away from the problems of everyday life. But as soon as you decide to turn pro, you're dealing with a tough, tricky business.

Here are some hard facts:

Approximately 25,000 manuscripts get rejected for every one book that gets published. (Hill and Power, "Bookstore Shelves")

In the United States, only about 500 authors are able to earn a living just by writing fiction. (Simmons)

The rest of the published novelists find that their book income keeps them below the poverty level, forcing them to work another job. (Smith)

The typical advance for a first novel is less than $10,000. (Larbalestier)

More than half of the books published bring in no money beyond the advance. (Snark)

Over 50% of novelists hold a graduate degree, but no advanced degree or certification can guarantee a manuscript sale. (Smith)

These statistics tell us that novel-writing ranks among the most challenging careers in America today. For every published author who collects a handsome royalty check, tens of thousands of other writers face repeated disappointments. Most novelists work for years and never earn a penny.

But here's the good news: This profession is not a lottery. Certain factors drastically increase a writer's chance at success.

Success factor #1: The writer knows how to write very well. Very, very well.

Published authors have the ability to write fluent, natural prose that is entirely free of grammar or spelling errors. They have mastered the craft of writing just as surely as highly paid surgeons have mastered anatomy and proper medical technique. They love to write, and they do it with style.

How do we know this? Literary agents tell us so. They reject most of the manuscripts they see because of poor writing. (Hill and Dee, "Fishing")

Successful fiction requires a thorough understanding of language. Spelling and grammar are the easiest things a writer has to know. If the writer doesn't know them, then he or she doesn't know lots of much more difficult things, such as how to control shifts in point of view. Agents and editors know that, so they don't give poor writing a chance.

Put it this way: You own a circus, and a performer comes to profile his new act, a crowd-pleaser that features juggling knives while riding a unicycle across a tightrope fifty feet above the ground. But two minutes into the interview, this performer tries to juggle three golf balls, and one of them winds up in your Coke. Do you need to see any more? No. You already know he can't pull it off. And that's how agents feel when they start bumping into simple errors.

So, those of you who write beautifully—and you know who you are—will join this hunt well ahead of the pack. Those of you who can't write well now have to make a choice: give up your dream of seeing your name on bookstore shelves or sit down and learn how to write. You can do it if you want to. At some point, every author you respect has had to do it. And if you don't want to, that's okay, too. Keep writing for fun and share your writing with your family and friends.

Success factor #2: The writer has a lifelong habit of reading.

One of my editors used to lament that she rejected lots of manuscripts because the writer had not done enough reading. This led the writer to think that a book plot was fresh and exciting when actually it had been done to death. Writers who weren't readers mishandled common aspects of plotting and character development. The end result was a shallow, boring manuscript full of trite, awkwardly worded ideas.

Why would a person want to write a book if books give that person no pleasure? I don't know, but statistics support the belief that non-readers often write manuscripts. The average American purchases only one or two books a year (Nelson, "Pileup"), and Americans spend on average just two hours a month reading books. (Milliot, "New Answers) In fact, almost 50% of the population does not read even one book a year. ("Authorgeddon") Nevertheless, over 80% of the population feels that they have a book inside them, and an estimated six million manuscripts are making the rounds right this minute. ("Statistics")

If you intend to write fiction of publishable quality, you must read lots of published fiction, hundreds if not thousands of books. No one can teach us the fine points of our craft; we have to learn it by reading. Those of you who have been doing this for years are positioned for commercial success. Those of you who don't read face that same annoying choice. You can start reading now during every spare minute and get back to writing fiction in a couple of years, or you can remind yourself that your writing is an enjoyable hobby and that it doesn't have to be published to be fun.

Success factor #3: The writer keeps writing new stories and does not focus all his or her hopes on one manuscript.

The single question in an editor's or agent's mind while she reads your manuscript is this: Will the novel sell? Until the answer is Yes, you won't publish a book. But the market changes from year to year, if not from month to month. Your current manuscript may not match up with what today's readers seem to want, but your next idea may be perfect for tomorrow's readers. Authors often find publishing success with their third or fourth manuscript, and that's why it's very important to keep writing.

Stephen King is reported to have said about publishing success, "You just need to be in the right place at the right time. Since none of us can know when the right time will be, our job is to get to the right place and stay there." (Van Pelt) The Horror King should know: he wrote and submitted material for more than half a decade before his career started to roll. At least two other book-length manuscripts failed to find homes before he finished and sold his third novel, Carrie. If he had gotten stuck polishing that very first manuscript to death, he might still be teaching school.

There are no shortcuts to publishing success. Published authors write and write and read and write some more because that's what we love to do. As author James Van Pelt says, "... The act of writing is more important than the fate of the writing." For some of us, that's good news.

The following are my sources for the data on this webpage. I've chosen to cite them rather than link to them because our Internet world is so ephemeral. These links are here today; they may be gone tomorrow. But if you search Google by article title or author name, hopefully they'll turn up somewhere else.

"Authorgeddon is Nigh." Press Release Newswire. 2 June 2005. 28 Oct. 2006 /releases/20051520/6/prwebxml246822.php

Hill, Brian, and Dee Power. "How Do Books Get on the Bookstore Shelves?" Authors' Website. 2006. 28 Oct. 2006 /howbooks.html

---. "Fishing for an Agent?" Authors' Website. 2005. 28 Oct. 2006 /agents.html

Larbalestier, Justine. "A Few More Words on First Novel Advances." The Justine Larbalestier Site. 5 Feb. 2005. 28 Oct. 2006 Musings/Musings2005/firstnoveladvances2.htm

Milliot, Jim, et al. "New Answers to Old Questions." Publishers Weekly Website. 26 May 2003. 28 Oct. 2006 /article/CA301155.html?display=archive

Nelson, Sara. "The Fall Pileup." Publishers Weekly Website. 12 Sep. 2005. 28 October 2006 /article/CA6255846.html?display=archive

Simmons, Dan. "Writing Well, Installment One." Dan Simmons: Official Web Site. Jan. 2006. 28 Oct. 2006 /writing_welll/archive/2006_01.htm

Smith, Nancy DuVergne. The Freelance Writers' Lot: The NWU American Writers Survey Profiles. New York: National Writers Union, 1995. Also available on Author's Website. 28 Oct. 2006

Snark, Miss. "Give back the Money?" Miss Snark, the Literary Agent: Blogspot. 31 Jan 2006. 28 Oct. 2006 /2006/01/give-back-money.html

"Statistics." Dan Poynter's 2004. 28 Oct. 2006 /sites/para/resources/statistics.cfm

Van Pelt, James. "Perseverance, Publishing, and the Urge to Write." Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Website. 4 Jan. 2005. 28 Oct. 2006 /writing/jamesvanpelt1.htm

"Basic Facts about Book Publishing" copyright 2006 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.

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