For authors trying to get their work published, I have some good news. And some bad
news. And they are both sort of the same thing.
Here’s the reality of publishing today.
It is all on you.
Coming out of grad school, I don’t think my plan was all that different from most writers.
Went something like this: Write great book. Sell great book. Make money.
There’s an analogy I love to use from South Park about the Underpants Gnomes. For
those of you who haven’t seen the cartoon, the Underpants Gnomes sneak into your room
late at night to steal your underpants with the intention of making money. Their business
Step One: Steal underpants
Step Two: ?
Step Three: Make money
Which is often how it feels to be a writer. We all aim to write something great. A great
story, a great poem, a great book. And while most of us know money is tough to come by
in this field, that doesn’t stop us from dreaming big. Problem is that damn Step Two.
I don’t know how the path to writing success works, but I can tell you one thing: it
doesn’t work like I thought it did coming out of grad school. If you are good enough and
you don’t give up, you can get there. But it’s a long and crooked road (littered with tons
The dirty little secret of the writing profession is that the “writing” doesn’t matter. Or
at least not as much as we authors think it should. That hurts to hear, I know. We all
got into this line of work because we love words. We love the rhythm, the cadence, the
musicality, the moods and emotions great writing can evoke. But the reality is we live
in a capitalist market. Publishers want to make money first. They want to make money
second, third, and fourth, too. And that’s OK. That’s how the world works. Publishers
have to pay editors, printers, publicists, advertisers. Everyone has to get paid. So while
you may think your 1,000-page novel about deep sea fishing and familial relations in the
Bayou is the next great American novel—and it very well may be—a publisher wants to
know how will it sell.
But as I said, this isn’t all bad news. Today’s digital world affords the new writer myriad
avenues and options that weren’t available twenty years ago. And, no, I am not talking
If you are just starting out, you are going to hear the term “author platform” a lot. I mean,
ad nauseam. All the phrase means is that publishing houses, agents, and editors want
assurances that you are bringing something to the table (besides your wonderful prose)
before they take a chance on you. I know too many writers who feel Facebook, Twitter,
Stumble Upon, et. al, are beneath them, as if their only job is to write. I urge you not to
be one of those writers. That may’ve been true once upon a time. It is not anymore. And
the writers I know who feel this way, more often than not, are having trouble landing
agents and getting published. My agent will not sign a client without a Facebook/Twitter
account and a personal website/blog. Those are bare-minimum requirements.
The “author platform” helps assuage a publisher’s concerns. Namely, who is going to buy
the damn book? Now this doesn’t mean, all things being equal, that publishers, editors,
and agents wouldn’t rather take on a great piece of writing over whatever drivel Bethany
Frankel or some dopey Reality TV star is trotting out this week. They are human too.
(Publishers, I mean. I am not sure about Reality TV stars.) Who wouldn’t rather read a
good book over a bad one? But all things are not equal.
I will use 50 Shades of Grey as an example. I don’t know if this qualifies as a “good
book.” I have read excerpts, and I can tell you that based on my education and acumen,
the prose is dreadful. But you know what? Who cares? EL James is making, last I heard,
something like $200K a day off that book. I would kill for her career. There are plenty of
“bad” writers making money for reasons other than the writing. Usually because they had
a great idea. James tapped into such an idea with mommy porn. Dan Brown, another guy
who couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, also comes up with great ideas. (People
love treasure hunts.)
If you’ve got a great idea? Lucky you. Don’t tell anyone. Writers steal. It is what we do.
So for the rest of us, with the pretty good ideas, we go into a big ol’ pool with a bunch of
other writers with pretty good ideas. Can you write a pretty sentence, are you good with
metaphor? Have snappy dialogue? Great. Welcome to the party. Because being able to do
all those things is how you get your foot in the door.
Now let’s say not only can you write pretty sentences, believable characters, and
construct compelling plots; you also are driven enough to get it all down in a coherent
if (to quote Anne Lamott) “shitty first draft.” Then let’s say you are still encouraged
enough to get back in there, extrapolate, tweak, shape that all into a novel. And let’s take
this fantasy further, and say you work, work, work until you walk away with an actual
honest-to-God book you are proud of. It is edited, polished, and moving. You send it out
to an agent, and all your dreams come true. The agent loves it! Signs you right up. Then
stretching the tenets of this scenario beyond believability, let’s say a publisher pounces,
agrees to put it out in the world. You go through the whole process, and a year later, after
all the edits and rewriting and proofing, the book gets released, and . . .
Because unless you are Stephen King or JK Rowling, chances are you’re not getting a
book tour; you do not get a publicist. No one is setting up a single launch or reading.
Promotional resources are limited.
Trust me. I have three books out, a fourth on the way. I work for a small publisher
(Gutter Books). This is just how it is.
So it is up to YOU to get the word out.
How do we do that?
Here’s the cool part about living in 2014. We have the Internet, a direct link to our fans.
Or potential fans. Facebook. Twitter. Linked In. Reddit. All these sites that allow us to be
in one-on-one communications with our readers. Of course every other writer—and there
are a lot of writers out there—has these avenues too, and nothing will turn off the masses
faster than slathering websites and blogs with links to your work, screaming “Look at
me! Look at me!”
The key to social media is that whole “social” part. Drop by and just say hi. Post a cat
video once in a while. “Like” a baby picture. Comment about current topics. (Just never
get into a discussion about politics or religion, or you’ll never get any writing done.)
You go old school.
Readings. Coordinate with your local bookstore. Think outside the box. One trick is to
promote other writers. I edit a crimezine (The Flash Fiction Offensive), and run a reading
series (Lip Service West). By touting the work of others, prospective readers get to see
my name. You need to become part of a community. Which is tough for a lot of writers
because we are private people. We don’t like putting on pants and leaving the house.
But online communities count, too. If you can afford it, workshops and conferences are
a terrific way to mingle with others just as socially awkward as you are. Writing is a
solitary act but we don’t live in a vacuum. Become part of the writing community! Join a
This not-in-a-vacuum idea is paramount. And it goes back to what we were talking about
earlier, with EL James or whoever the current flavor of the month is. They have tapped
into a market, supplying a need. It’s offensive to us as writers, as “artists,” to feel we are
amending our vision—our integrity—to appease a market. But I urge you not to view it
like that. Writing for a living is a constant play between two forces. Our vision versus the
Think of it like this: I have a time machine and can send you anywhere in the history of
the world. Now pick out an outfit. Well, blue jeans and T-shirts might work in 1950s
America, but that attire would be entirely out of place in the Renaissance. We dress our
writing accordingly. I have so many friends who can’t get published, and I’ve explained
this concept to them, using this analogy, and they react almost violently. There’s an
underlying belief that states if a writer has to change, in any way, his or her vision, it
somehow cheapens the product, diminishes credibility. Not true. We learn the rules so we
can later exploit them to our advantage. Same as the rest of life.
I like that time-traveling analogy because it is still you traveling. And I promise it’s going
to be a good time when you get there. You just need a clue what the fashion of the day is.
You never want to be the one who shows up to the party naked.
Joe Clifford is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books, managing editor of The Flash
Fiction Offensive, and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series
in Oakland, CA. Clifford is the author of these books: Choice Cuts, Junkie Love, Wake the
I ducked inside the pantry to see what else we could sell when I tripped over a cord of wood and snared the back of my work coat on an old, rusty nail. The sharp point tore through the thick padding and ripped a hole in my long johns, all the way through my undershirt. I hurried to the sink and peeled off the layers. Just a surface cut. Thankfully, unlike the heat and power, the water was still on. I began dabbing the wound. Last thing I needed was lockjaw. I hadn’t had a tetanus shot in twelve years. The estate clearing business was big in Ashton, and my boss Tom Gable a good guy, but it’s not like the gig comes with health insurance.
All afternoon I’d been up at Ben Saunders’ place, a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the foothills, cherry picking through the dead man’s belongings, loading the U-Haul for trips to flea markets and swap shops in Southern New England. Saunders had lived alone and was a packrat. The cancer finally got him around Thanksgiving. Most of his stuff was junk. A dumpster sat in the snow-covered driveway overflowing with waterlogged pads of fiberglass, chunks of splintered wood, jagged shards of glass, trash bags jam-packed with leftovers that didn’t quite translate to dollars and cents. I was almost done, and I’d be glad for the day to end. If I wrapped up soon enough, I’d have time to shoot across town to catch Jenny before she put our son to bed. I hadn’t seen him all week.
Out the kitchen window, thick, black storm clouds roiled over Lamentation Mountain, churning like the gears to a violent machine, steamrolling the summit and sucking all light from the landscape, vast pastures and encasing stonewalls shrouded in dense fields of leaden smoke. Cold winds rustled through broken windows. The flapping insulation sounded like a plastic bag held out a speeding car on the highway.
The big, empty farmhouse smelled of abandon. Night was settling, and the snow began to fall heavier. It had been one of the worst winters on record. Certainly the worst since the accident.
Twenty years had passed but my parents’ crash felt closer to last week. I stared in the direction of Lamentation Bridge, even though I couldn’t see much through the evening gloam, freezing my ass off, making no effort to get redressed. I knew that somewhere in the dark lie the exact spot where their brakes failed, and they plunged into the frigid grey water of Echo Lake; the night everything changed for my older brother Chris and me. I could feel death’s presence lurking the entire week I’d been working there, a pall hanging over the place. It was the monkey on my back. The elephant in the room. The crazy little bird chirping in my ear....