AdviceSo You Want to Be A Writer...

Being a series of nine articles of advice to would-be writers, originally written 1988-1990, published in various fanzines, and then updated for the web. Most of this is severely out of date, since so much of the business has moved from hardcopy and streetmail to electronic formats.

Part Seven: What Happens Next: After The Contract

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

So you want to be a writer. You've written a novel, and it's been accepted, and you've negotiated the contract and signed it.

What happens then?

Well, first, were any revisions requested?

If this is your first novel, they probably were. You probably have a deadline.

Second, what's the payment schedule? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that you're getting $4,500 advance against 6% royalties, paid one-third on signing, one-third on acceptance, and one-third on publication.

Does that mean that as soon as the contracts arrive on the editor's desk, she'll sign a check, and you'll have it next week?


Come on, even a complete tyro like you should know better than that.

If you're dealing with a respectable publisher who's not having money troubles, and with a competent editor, you should get the on-signing money about four weeks after you send in the contract. That's how long it takes for the paperwork to get done.

If you're dealing with one of the several publishers who have the clever notion that paying slowly means they get to earn more interest on the money, then it'll be longer than that, possibly much longer. I'm not going to name any names--for one thing, circumstances do change--but I'm familiar with an instance where an "on-signing" payment took five months to arrive, rather than five weeks.

But let's suppose your publisher, Gigantic House, has its act together. You'll get your $1,500 in on-signing money about a month after you mail back the contracts.

Meanwhile, you've been doing the revisions, right? So you send those in.

When the editor gets around to approving them and declaring the book accepted, the four-week paperwork starts on your second, on-acceptance check.

How long will it take the editor to do that?

Well, who is your editor? Is she taking time off to have a baby, is she six months backlogged from being out sick, is she having a nervous breakdown? Is she just chronically slow? These are all possible.

This is one place an agent is useful--he can nag the editor for you without getting her really mad at you. Nagging's part of his job, after all.

In short, getting revisions approved may happen in a couple of days, or it may take a month. The worst case I know of personally was an eight-month delay, but that's really extreme.

But suppose the revisions are approved, and you've gotten your on-acceptance check. Now what?

Now you wait. Or better still, you forget about that book and work on the next one. It's out of your hands for the present.

The editor isn't idle, though; she's doing the actual editing. And while she is, someone at the publisher is kicking around cover ideas, choosing an artist, getting the back cover blurb written.

You won't hear about any of this. You won't be consulted. If you make suggestions they'll be ignored. You may be told, "That's a great idea!" but as soon as you're off the phone, it's forgotten. Authors are deliberately excluded from all this, on the grounds that they're so in love with what's inside the book that they don't understand what the cover stuff is for. Which is advertising.

The purpose of cover art is not to show the reader what's inside the book.

It's to get his attention from across the bookstore and get him to pick the book up in the first place.

Half-naked women and muscular barbarians are very good for getting teenaged readers to at least take a look. Black and red are good, too. And spiffy hardware, like spaceships. Cut-out covers, foil, blood, all that stuff--it gets attention, and the art and marketing people really don't give a damn whether it agrees with what's inside the book.

The cover gets you to pick up the book and read the blurbs; the blurbs are supposed to convince you to actually buy it. The blurb writer doesn't care any more about accuracy than the art director did; his job is to sell the book, period. One way to do that is to skim through the book and pick out all the most lurid details.

So all this is done without the author's interference. The author might put up a fuss about the half-naked women, since everyone in the story is ninety years old and wearing dirty bathrobes the whole time. The author might object to having his sentimental tale of old age cover-blurbed, "Shocking Love Secrets of the Ancients!" Who wants to waste time arguing with him? Better to shut him out and deliver the package as a fait accompli.

And while all that's going on, to distract you, they'll send you the copy-edited manuscript to review.


Some publishers will, and some won't. And they aren't always consistent from one book to the next, either.

Anyway, you'll get your manuscript back, with ten zillion stupid little corrections all over it, changing your punctuation and removing all your italics and exclamation points and semicolons. There will be Post-Its all over the manuscript with questions like, "Page 377: George calls Sally an Anatolian bitch. On page 173, he called her an Andalusian hussy. Is she Anatolian or Andalusian?" Or "Is 'crumthwacket' here a typo for 'Drumthwacket,' the estate in Louisiana, or is Rafael making up a word?"

You will be amazed to see how bad your grammar, spelling, and punctuation are, and how many stupid little inconsistencies crept into your story along the way.

You are now permitted to argue back to all the little changes and corrections. Anything that got changed that you want the way you originally wrote it you underline with a row of dots, and write in the margin "STET." Which is Latin for "it stands," and typesetter's code for "Don't you mess with my stuff when it's not wrong!"

Some writers have rubber stamps that say STET. Helps avoid writer's cramp.

Actually, I'm being snide here. There are some very fine copy editors out there, and some authors are vastly improved by good copy-editing. Not everyone can spell perfectly, and a few little slips always sneak in.

I've had a couple of bad experiences with copy editors recently [well, recently in 1989, not in 1999]--but I had no trouble at all on about a dozen other books.

Anyway, you get to go through the copy-edited manuscript, and send it back. The editor will then send it out to be typeset.

Most publishers will tell you that the author's corrections take precedence over the copy editor's. Typesetters, however, have minds of their own, and will often side with the copy editors, regardless of instructions.

That's assuming they've actually been told to follow the author, which isn't necessarily the case.

So--you've seen the copy-edited manuscript and sent it back. I should mention that they usually give you about a three-hour deadline to go through the whole thing; this is a good time to ask your editor for the publisher's Federal Express account number.

Now you once again hear nothing for months.

During that time, the cover art is done and sent in; you probably won't be informed, but if you ask the editor nicely you might manage to get the name of the cover artist, maybe even what scene he's supposed to paint. The blurb is written, the logo laid out, and the whole thing sent off to the printer for some trial runs, to see how the colors reproduce.

The book is typeset by now. It's proofread.

You haven't heard anything for months, and then fairly close together you'll receive the page proofs (still sometimes called galley proofs or galleys, even though the technology has changed and the term no longer really applies), and a cover proof.

This is a strange time. The cover will be a shock; it is never the way you pictured it, but on the other hand, it's starting to look like a Real Book now. You'll stare at it and wonder, "What the hell were they thinking of, putting that on the cover?" And you'll feel this weird elation over seeing your name on it, even though the scene is all wrong.

As for the page proofs, you will now discover that you need to make half the changes you made on the copy-edit all over again. You will also find several thousand typoes that you'll try to correct. And the package of proofs was postmarked the day after the deadline given in the enclosed letter, in all likelihood.

(On both the copy-edit and the page proofs you're supposed to get ten days to two weeks. Ha.)

You don't have to do anything with the cover proof. This is for you to show off at conventions, or frame and hang on your wall, or whatever you like.

Some publishers don't send you a cover proof unless you ask. You should always ask. It's worth seeing.

Some publishers will give you a whole stack, which you can pass out at the local bookstores or use as giant postcards.

So you send in the page proofs and wait again. By now they should definitely have told you the official publication date.

And a few months later, you get a small package in the mail, and open it up, and there's the first copy of Your Book, usually with a note from the editor saying something vital like, "We think it looks good!" paperclipped to the front, just to ensure that it won't be in perfect condition.

This is your office copy. Sometimes there are two of them. Sometimes they have weird markings in them on random pages; these are some of the very first copies off the presses, and the printers will check them over and mark them up. I don't know why.

Now is the time to start haunting the bookstores, because any day now, there they'll be, on the shelves! And you can scream and point and tell the manager, who won't be very excited at all because he's seen it all before.

And you'll count how many copies and check back every couple of hours to see if any sold, and you'll make sure they're always face out, not spine out...

You aren't going to outgrow this, either, you know; every author I ever met still turns his or her books face out in the stores at least occasionally.

And there you are; you're an author!

Now, how long has this taken, from acceptance to the book on the bookstore shelves?

If you're very lucky, ten months. A year to fourteen months is more common. Eighteen months is not unusual at all. The page proofs should have come and gone about four months before the official release date; the copy-edit four to six months before that. All of that can vary a lot, though.

And when will you get that on-publication money?

Maybe six weeks after the official release date, which is itself two or three weeks after when the book actually starts to reach stores.

And then what? What's it like to be a published author, rather than just a struggling writer?

More on that next time.


All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
All rights reserved
No reproduction permitted without permission of the author


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