Before attending last night’s James River Writers Writing Show, “Writer with a Capital ‘W,'” with moderator Kristi Tuck Austin and guest, author and founder of We Need Diverse Books, Lamar Giles, I was maybe a little delusional. I had this idea that someday, eventually, my book would get published, sell lots of copies, and the hard part would be over. I would live a life of luxury that required nothing more of me than to write for a few hours each day, and maybe make some appearances on television, and in between these two activities, I’d do whatever I wanted. Travel. Sleep past 5 a.m. Read. It would be leisurely.
Last night’s Writing Show was nothing short of a reality check for me.
The point of the Show was that as writers, we need to take ourselves seriously. That seems encouraging, but taking oneself seriously means a lot more than I bargained for. Mr. Giles spoke on topics I hadn’t even considered yet–things like speaking fees, my responsibilities to my readers, business licenses, taxes, handling setbacks, etc. Below is what I learned.
Lamar Giles’s Publication Journey
Lamar Giles has loved writing since he was a child. He began writing his first novel when he was 14, finishing it six years later, at the age of 20. When he was 21, he started his first job, which involved sitting in a cubicle eight hours a day. He recalled how hard he thought it was to get up every single day and go to work to sit in that little box all day. He also recalled always hearing people say how difficult it was to get published, and thinking to himself,
“If getting up in the morning to sit in this box is hard, and getting published is hard, why do this hard thing I don’t want to do?”
In response to that question, he made his life even harder. He started getting up even earlier, at 5 o’clock in the morning, so he could work on his writing career before heading to work each day. He would write until about 7:30, at which point he would prepare to go spend the rest of the day in his cubicle at his “real job.”
In the early 2000s, he managed to publish several short stories, and at the age of 32, ten years after setting his main goal of publishing a novel, he did. However, he also experienced a three-year dry spell during which he couldn’t seem to sell any of his writing to anyone. A $5000 grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts pulled him out of this slump, and pushed him to keep writing.
Precise Plan for Publication
Mr. Giles said one thing he believes helped him get his books published was a precise plan. In 2009, he loved writing horror, but the genre didn’t seem to be selling well. Instead, dystopian series like The Hunger Games and vampire stories like Twilight were extremely popular. However, that trend also meant those were the types of stories everyone was trying to sell. Agents’ pipelines were clogged with stories similar to Divergent, The Hunger Games, etc. So Giles asked himself: “What can I do that’s missing?” He decided on an answer: Young Adult (YA) mystery. And so he began.
He started writing in January and finished in June. He spent June through September revising the draft. He spent the entire month of December crafting his query letter, deliberately picking this month for this task, because, he informed us, the publishing industry virtually shuts down in December, but opens up again in January. He wanted to be one of the first writers the refreshed agents found in their inboxes upon their return to work. So, right on schedule, he mailed his query letters to ten agents on January 2, 2010. By the end of that same month, seven of those ten agents had requested his full manuscript.
But it wasn’t all easy from there. By the end of March, all seven had ultimately rejected his manuscript after reading it in full. Undeterred, Giles queried five more agents in June. In July, three of those five offered him representation.
His overall advice regarding getting representation can be summed up as follows:
Research agents, and query those who you think would be the most interested, and the most likely to follow up with you.
Make sure your query letter is well-crafted and personalized. Revise it meticulously. Spend lots of time on it.
Even when you get rejected (and you will), try again.
Most agents won’t invite you to resubmit, so query agents in small batches to test your query letter. If no one bites, there’s probably something wrong with your letter. Revise it, and query a new batch of agents.
And that brings us nicely to our next topic…
Money, Money, Money, Money!
I always thought that once my book was published and money started materializing out of my efforts, I would be on Easy Street. Wrong. We work to make money, but once we make it, we have to work to manage it, too.
Taxes and Money Management
Giles recommends finding an accountant to help manage your money, especially because taxes may not be taken out of your book sales, and you may have to pay quarterly taxes. He also recommends getting a business license, and warns that depending on where you are, you may need to be zoned to have a home office. In addition, you might need to file with the state for state sales tax.
One more piece of advice: If you plan to leave your job for a full-time writing career, have at least two years’ salary saved up, because publishing money comes slowly. The checks might be big, but they might only come once a year.
For the first six months of his appearances, Giles worked for free or cheap, letting the venue set his fee. Then, he started speaking at a rate of $1000 for three hours. In the fall of 2016, he will begin charging $1500 for a day, if the venue is local, and a $2500 flat fee if he has to travel and get a hotel room. These fees are meant to cover expenses and taxes, and to compensate him for his time. Time he spends presenting or speaking is time he cannot be writing, which is his real bread and butter. Giles advises us to say no if we have to, and to get a virtual assistant to handle these negotiations.
Even once your book gets published, your work is not done. You have to market your work and you have to cultivate a relationship with your readers. Giles and Austin offered online activities and offline activities we can do to support our endeavors.
Three Online Activities
Get a Publisher’s Marketplace subscription. This will allow you to see what’s selling week-to-week.
Take out ads on Facebook and Twitter, and consider Amazon’s Author Central, which allows you to see where your book has been selling well, and where it hasn’t been, thus helping you target your market.
Hire a virtual assistant who can help you manage your e-mails, social media accounts, in-person appearances, etc.
Three Offline Activities
Take a course in public speaking at a local college, or get involved with your local Toastmasters.
Learn to use graphic software like Photoshop so you can design your own marketing materials, as opposed to always having to pay someone.
Write and finish and do it again.
Connect with a community of writers.
Get to genuinely know your local librarians and booksellers.
On Taking Yourself Seriously
Giles reminded all of us in the audience of the importance of taking ourselves seriously as writers. If we don’t, who will? You have to take yourself seriously and believe in yourself before others will. In addition, if you don’t have faith in yourself, the people who do have faith in themselves will crush you. Don’t be ashamed of your goal; if you take yourself seriously, the rest of the world eventually will, too.