This is Ask Me Editing, a new writing and publishing-advice column where our industry agony-uncle dispenses priceless advice.
Hello and welcome to Ask Me Editing, the publishing advice column that in no-way infringes on anything Reddit has ever done. So, learn some stuff about book business and then go back to poring over your manuscript. Send me your questions, like ‘Why can't I stop crying?’.
Q: Am I allowed to be jealous of my successful friends?
A few years ago I published my first book. It met with very limited success – it wasn't badly reviewed, but it wasn't reviewed much, and didn't sell at all. I'm working on my second one, but it's slow work and I'm very discouraged. To make it worse, all my friends are also writers, and I feel like they are eclipsing me in terms of success. Recently, I've been battling extreme jealousy, and I find it hard to pretend to be happy for them. Am I being petty? Or am I right to feel resentment when they flaunt their success all over social media in a way I consider obnoxious?
Are you right to feel resentment over your friend’s successes? Not really, no. It’s not an emotion that will help anyone, yourself or your friend. Does everyone have moments like this? Probably. I would say it’s inevitable to feel some jealousy at some point in your career. It’s really difficult to not compare yourself to other people, especially when it comes down a clear product vs. product. Your book didn’t sell well, theirs perhaps did. It’s hard not to feel like your book has failed in comparison. There’s a lot that people have written about this – how to support your friends while you’re in the midst of seething green envy, how to disentangle your sense of self-worth from the performance of your product. What it all comes down to, I believe, is HOW you use that feeling of resentment. I’m a big fan of using it as a spur to keep trying, as a motivating tool. I also try very hard not to set myself up in comparison with other people – the only person I’m trying to beat is myself. If I’m reaching my own goals, or surprising myself, then I know I’m doing the best I can, regardless of the success of my writing. I can’t control how my writing does, I can only control what I do.
However, I would like to focus on the sting in your question: ‘flaunt their success all over social media in a way I consider obnoxious’.
Now, this can be hard. Is it actually obnoxious? Or is the fact that they are sharing their success online when you can see, an obnoxious reality for you to deal with? Writing is often a lonely, thankless task, which I’m sure you understand. We’re not given moments of cathartic celebration by default – we don’t have end of year Christmas parties or ten years long service leave or even really weekends. Sometimes it looks like an endless grind that will only end the day we are buried in a shallow grave. So, what I’m saying is that we have to celebrate our victories, and really, really appreciate what successes we gain. And it’s up to us to do that – nobody can celebrate your success for you.
If that means sharing online with friends, then I believe a writer should do that. Also, on a business level, winning prizes or whatever is an important way to spread the word about a book. For a lot of authors and genres, it’s almost the only way to actually market something. I don’t think we should begrudge people their success. BUT – on a personal care level, sometimes it’s not the right time to deal with another person winning while you’re feeling low. In my low points, I’ve done a couple of ‘congratulate and walk away’. On Facebook that sometimes means turning off notifications after I’ve wished them well, so I can get through the day without being constantly reminded of how much I didn’t win that prize, or get given that grant or opportunity.
But I do think it’s important to support your writer friends, even if they’re currently at a high, and you’re at a low.
You might join them later, or you might not – but I’d rather be supportive than not, even if I’m an unsuccessful writer. Unsuccessful but supportive trumps unsuccessful and a jerk. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. quote, which I love to mangle and paraphrase – when it comes to authors ‘we’re all furiously rowing the same sinking ship’.
Q: Can I pitch to more than one publication?
Four days ago, I pitched a story idea to an editor at [REDACTED] and I still haven't had any response. My story is time-sensitive and I would like to put it somewhere, but I don't want to pitch it elsewhere while [REDACTED] is still considering it because that seems like bad form?
How long should I wait for a response before I take my pitch somewhere else?
This is mildly ironic, because I didn’t get this question for ages after you submitted it, so I hope this issue has been resolved for you! Regardless, I’ve decided to take this straight to an editor to be resolved. Sheree Joseph is the Managing Editor of Fairfax’s The Vocal, and has very kindly agreed to tell us what’s what:
Ideally the first place you pitch to should be your preferred publication and that's why you're in a pickle, because you love them and really want them to respond right away. I'm also going to assume you made sure to tailor the pitch specifically to that publication, since not doing that and sending out a generic mass email is a surefire way to go unnoticed.
Unfortunately the reality is all editors are extremely busy. They have like 20-30 pitches (maybe more, I don't want to imagine such an apocalyptic scenario) waiting for their eyeballs to scan over and make a decision. You can assume that no editor is sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the perfect pitch to respond to immediately (and if they are, I'd like to speak to them about taking their job please and thank you.)
So in most cases that could actually be the reason why you haven't heard back. If your story is time sensitive you have every right to check in. As for how long you should wait, if it's a news story for that particular day, follow up that day. If it's time sensitive but not in a breaking news kinda way, and you've already waited 4 days but can't wait a second more, then by all means follow up after 3-5 days. If you wait any longer, your pitch is likely to have fallen from the face of the earth in that time. If you go in too early, you risk annoying the editor who maybe had you on their to-do list already. If it's not time sensitive, give it a good week or two before following up. Follow ups are great because it's like a little notification for our brains telling us how to prioritise but it's also wise to be patient since you never know what crazy shenanigans are going on behind the scenes (lots of emergency building evacuations for one.)
What you should never do is surprise the editor a few days later (or in some cases a few hours later) saying the pitch has been accepted elsewhere.
We don't like surprises, our hearts are fragile. Likewise never pitch to two places at the same time. Because if they both say yes, you might feel chuffed at being in demand and turning that situation around so you're the one wearing the fancy rejection pants (well look at you go!) but that's only likely to waste someone's precious, valuable time. And remember how I said editors are busy? You risk ruining a potential relationship with a great publication.
So in summary: be patient, be polite but firm when it's time to follow up and have your back up pitch email ready to go (just in case).
Q: Can I be J.K. Rowling?
How do I make good money as a writer? Be lucky?
Look, luck definitely plays a factor. A lot of bestsellers can only blame their success on luck. However, trying to pin your business hopes on ‘luck’ is a bad idea – publishers can only make informed guesses about what might be successful, and trying to follow trends can only hinder as much as help. So, that’s crazy bestsellers.
Let’s just assume that we can’t control whether or not that happens, so let’s focus on making money. Good money, or just any money.
A recent study shows that Australian author only earn $12,900 on average from their writing. So, basically, making money is really fucking difficult. There’s a bunch of reasons for this – big DDM’s under-pricing, the closure of the big chains like Borders etc, the split with ebooks – and they all mean that the ‘mid-list’ print author is a rarity these days. A mid-list author was someone who wasn’t a J.K. Rowling or E.L. James level author, but was still able to support themselves off their books. They weren’t world famous, but they had a decent readership, and there was always the chance they could grow to another tier of popularity as their backlist and readers grow. They were once a large portion of authors – now they’re very rare. There basically seems to be a ‘bestseller or die’ mentality.
Or at least amongst print, anyway. It’s my belief that the mid-list has migrated to digital. There are people who are earning good and VERY GOOD amounts of money from self-publishing or digital lists. I recently interviewed a bunch of self-published authors, to try and discover if and how they had managed to quit their jobs and write full time. The ones in the article were flourishing. Many others that I talked to haven’t got there yet.
So, I believe that you can make money as an author, although there’s different avenues depending on what you write. If you write any sort of genre fiction, then it’s perfectly achievable to earn your main income from self-publishing, providing you have a solid marketing strategy and you’re willing to learn dozens of ancillary skills. There’s all sorts of strategies around building your readership and engaging online, advertising cleverly, publishing smartly that can help you earn money. Other genres are more tricky, such as literary fiction which basically relies on winning prizes.
Patrick Lenton is your NEW PROFESSIONAL AGONY UNCLE. If he doesn't know it, he'll go and find out. ASK HIM ANYTHING! Send your questions to Patrick care of firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet them to us, and he'll respond with FREE professional advice.
Patrick Lenton is an author, works for Momentum books and runs Town Crier, a social media and digital marketing consultancy for authors.