One interesting thing about writing is that there are so many different courses and workshops that teach a writer the craft of writing. But there’s not nearly as many resources out there to assist a writer with the behavior that is associated with being a professional.
And, just for the sake of clarity, I’m not talking about a pro as being someone who receives money for the work they produce. I’m talking about the way a writer behaves and interacts within the writing and publishing communities and with fans; about reading and understanding different publishing-related contracts, meeting deadlines and commitments, operating within the conventions of an expected format or genre; about dealing with reviews, critics and adversity and maintaining an overall positive reputation.
The digital world created opportunities well beyond the restrictions that previously existed for writers. But it also, inadvertently, exposed a far wider realm of levels of professionalism, or perhaps lack of professionalism than ever before.
Perhaps, in the old school “gatekeeper” process of finding an agent and publisher and of getting work published, the large steps, restrictive processes and longer waiting periods allowed a writer the opportunity to acclimatize themselves to moving from hobbyist writer to professional. This isn’t to say that the publishers offered their writers any training in this regard, nor that all people who have been or are traditionally published behave like professional writers; but perhaps the required actions such as the query letter, the manuscript submission process or even the pitching process had the side-effect of forcing some writers into beginning to develop those skills well before their work was actually published.
Of course, one side effect of this new world which allows virtually anybody the ability to create an account and click a few buttons and get their eBook onto the world’s largest bookstore in a matter of hours, means that there are many “writers” out there who aren’t actual writers, like you and me. They are simply using the same tools believing that they’ll be able to make a quick buck. In the strictly traditional “gatekeeper” process of publishing, most of these people wouldn’t have bothered, because of the intense work and waiting involved in that old process.
These “get rich quick” hucksters can give all of us writers a bad name; because their behavior is typically far removed from any desire to ever be a professional writer. But let’s just ignore those people for now, except to say that, because you have taken the time to read a book or article like this, you already stand out as someone willing to invest not only in your writing, but in yourself as a professional.
Of course, just in case you are thinking that I am poo-pooing digital publishing in favor of the “glory days” of traditional publishing, let me share the flip side. Because there is another trend that has taken place in traditional publishing that didn’t exist before. There was a time, long ago, where a writer could simply live like a hermit, pound out words on their typewriters, mail that manuscript to their editor or agent, and sit back, letting the system take care of the distribution and sales of their work. They never had to appear in public, nor did they even have to behave in a professional manner. The same gatekeepers that held back the flood gates of submitted manuscripts also protected some of their published writers from ever being revealed as awkward introverts who weren’t skilled at interacting well with others. They also served nicely in terms of keeping the public unaware of which authors were just plain jerks.
Those days are gone. Even if you traditionally publish, your job isn’t done once you hand your manuscript over. One of the criteria publishers pay attention to for the writers they contract is their presence, their engagement in social media, and their professionalism.
For the most part, regardless of whether you are traditionally published or are self-published, understanding and behaving professionally can be something that prevents you from being successful, or standing out as a consummate pro.
Below, I break professionalism down to three elements. “Paperwork, Contracts and Content,” “In Person Appearances and People Skills,” and “Adversity and Rejection.”
Paperwork, Contracts and Content
Within traditional publishing there are templates, formats and behaviors associated with the query and submission process. There are boilerplate contracts. And there are publishers who only publish specific types of books or particular genres.
Taking the time to learn and understand all of these nuances demonstrates your professionalism and will save you a significant amount of time, and, most likely, frustration and heartache.
Getting a contract from a publisher can be an exciting thing; but understanding that the contract is a negotiation and thus something that is negotiable is an important element of protecting your long-term intellectual property (IP). Publishers will, of course, set out a contract that gives them everything they could ever possibly want, even if they don’t plan on exploiting all those rights. It’s okay to have a respectful discussion about some of the clauses that might be detrimental to you and your work.
A book that I strongly recommend writers read is Dealbreakers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch [Note: This content was later updated by Rusch into Closing the Deal on Your Terms]. I didn’t discover the book until I had already signed my first contract with Dundurn for one of my non-fiction “ghost story” titles. Having worked in the industry for years, and understanding a bit about what I was doing, I had already made a few requests to their standard boilerplate contract that I was unwilling to sign. But, when it was time to sign the contract for the next book, having just finished reading Rusch’s Dealbreakers, I found twelve more clauses that I asked them to change. The publisher responded by either removing or revising ten of the twelve clauses that I had an issue with. The two remaining ones I had asked to change were long shots, and weren’t “make-or-break” for me, so I was quite satisfied with the result; and now they have a unique contract template for me for my books going forward. All thanks to the advice from Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
If you don’t ask, you definitely don’t receive.
And there is no harm in asking. Unless, of course, you ask in an unprofessional manner. When I wrote back to Dundurn, I was courteous and respectful. I didn’t write a letter decrying they were bloodsucking scavengers and that I refused to sign until they removed that list of clauses. I outlined my hesitation at signing and, where applicable, explained my reasoning for each request.
And, even though the contracts with the various retailers, like Kindle Direct Publishing or Kobo Writing Life, or the digital distributors, such as Smashwords or Draft2Digital, are not negotiable, it is just as important that you read through and understand the terms you are agreeing to and perhaps even the rights you might be giving up.
For example, there is a common clause in all of the major eRetailer terms that you agree to when signing up. Sometimes referred to as the “most favored nation” clause, it states that you cannot sell the same eBook via another retail outlet for a lower price. If so, that retailer reserves the right to price match and take that lost revenue out of your share. Amazon is, perhaps, the only retailer that regularly and aggressively responds to violations of this term, but you should double-check the terms you signed up for at Kindle, Kobo, Apple Books and the other retailers and distributors you are using, and you’ll see that they all have some language to that effect.
Beyond contracts and agreements that you sign with others are the things that you do within your own “office” that are important, such as the research you conduct, for both writing and business purposes, as well as tracking expenses, submissions, publications, etc.
Successful writers are ones who do the necessary research for the creative part of their writing. Yes, there are particular articles and stories that don’t require much research, because they rely on information the author already has or perhaps are derived completely from the imagination; but often times there are elements within a book that are best served by doing a little homework and being able to write about people, places and things with a little bit of understanding and perhaps even authority. That all comes from understanding the importance of effective research.
Research is also useful for writers who need to understand the layout of the worlds they are operating in. If a writer is pursuing a traditional publishing path, then researching the agent, editor or publishing house that they want to pitch their work to is critical. And, if they are pursuing the more DIY approach, research is required for learning how and what to do, which publishing professionals to hire, how the various retail and distribution channels work, as well as what strategies and promotion tactics work best for their particular niche, genre or product type.
Tracking not only your research, but your various writing and publishing activities helps you maintain an organized and professional perspective. For example, in traditional publishing, keeping a log or spreadsheet of what story or novel was submitted to which magazine, agent or publisher allows you to properly track where each of your stories or books currently are in their life cycle. Filing the signed contracts for and keeping account of when the rights you licensed to a publisher expire can help you when it comes time to leveraging those rights when another opportunity presents itself. Or perhaps understanding that you actually only sold North American rights to a publisher means that you still own the “Rest of World” rights and can use Kindle Direct Publishing or Kobo Writing Life to publish the work to other territories; this practice is becoming more and more common for many writers who, previously, were only exploiting their IP using traditional publishing.
Within self-publishing, tracking which titles are published to which retailers and through which processes, as well as the pricing that you have set in multiple currencies, to ensure that they are all priced consistently across the various global retail channels, is important. It might seem simple when you have one or just a handful of books, but, as your catalog grows and your use of multiple sources for the broadest global distributor increases, or even changes over time, it might be difficult to know how one particular book is being published to a specific online store.
Many of my own books, for example, are published via the following sources to get into as many outlets as possible in as many formats as possible:
· Kindle Direct Publishing (direct)
· Kobo Writing Life (direct)
· Google Play Books Partner Centre (direct)
· Draft2Digital (distribution)
· Smashwords (distribution & direct)
· PublishDrive (distribution)
· StreetLib (distribution)
· Direct Sales (via Bookfunnel)
· KDP Print (Amazon POD)
· Ingram Spark (POD distribution)
· Findaway Voices (production & distribution)
· ListenUp Audiobooks (production & distribution)
Keeping track of which platform is publishing to which retail channel is confusing. Now consider the multiple currency control that many of them offer. This is simply not something that can be trusted to memory.
Speaking of multiple currencies, attending to and paying attention to currencies well beyond the standard US dollar ensures that your eBook itself reflects a price that looks natural to a consumer in that territory. It not only looks more professional but doing this strategically can help increase your bottom line earnings.
For traditional publishing, there is a specific expected format and process for how to send your work to be considered for publication. There are expected protocols within each step of the process. Understanding those is one key to success within that method of publishing.
When it comes to self-publishing, there are similar expectations that demonstrate professionalism. The expectation is that the work being published has been professionally edited, that it has been proofread, and that the marketing copy and cover design has been created with the target audience, or ideal reader in mind. These are processes that a traditional publisher is usually skilled at; although I regularly do have a say for those elements of my own traditionally published books — the difference is that I am not responsible for finding the skilled persons to create and work on them.
One final thought on the idea of contracts is being reliable and honoring your commitments.
Does your contract state, or did you commit to handing your manuscript over to your editor by a specific date? Do so. Did you hire an editor for your self-published work under a specific schedule of when they could expect to receive that work? Hit that deadline. Give these people a reason to want to work with you again, otherwise you’ll be losing contracts or not being able to re-hire a great professional who helps make your work better, and you’ll gain a reputation as being unreliable.
Did you put up a pre-order for a specific date for a self-published title? Then do everything in your power to upload the final version of that book on time. Sure, Kindle Direct Publishing will revoke your pre-order privileges for a year, but there are other consequences that affect your image. Think about the fans who have pre-ordered that book and what this missed deadline means to the people who invested in you and your book.
In Person Appearances & People Skills
I’m going to start with a few basics that you might snicker about because they seem to be givens. But it’s not something to laugh about. It happens. More often than you might suspect.
Your personal appearance should adhere to some simple and common social standards and conventions.
Such as the basics of personal hygiene and grooming.
Yes, many writers are introverts and are perhaps most comfortable sitting in seclusion in pajamas or underwear they haven’t changed for days. Or they relish in being eclectic and reclusive and unique in their appearance.
Eclectic and specific author branding is fine. I mean, as part of my horror and ghost-story writer brand, I make appearances with a life-sized skeleton named Barnaby Bones and typically wear dark clothes that feature skulls.
But there is being eclectic and making a decided effort to appear with a specifically curated brand, and there is basic hygiene that should have to go without being said. Sadly, I’ve seen it all too often that I feel it is worth stating.
Bathe or shower. Tidy your hair. Brush your teeth. Wear clean clothes.
This works well whether you are meeting with agents, editors, retail representatives, other writers, or readers.
And, while your outward appearance and the smell you project can have a detrimental impact upon your professionalism, so too can the manner by which you conduct yourself either in public or online.
Simply: Don’t be a jerk.
Treat other people with respect and, whether it is through in person discussions, email communications or even comments left on various social media channels, conduct yourself with professionalism and grace. There are far too many stories of “authors behaving badly.” You don’t want to be considered one of them.
Think about someone that you met who was crass, rude, vulgar and unpleasant. Someone who had nothing but negative things to say or hostile reactions to virtually any stimulus. Is that a person you enjoy interacting with? Is that someone you would want to invest time, energy or, as a reader perhaps, invest your hard-earned money in?
Don’t be that person.
It’s not just useful in your role as a writer, but it is also something of value for life in general. You never know when the person in front of you in line at the grocery store, for example, could be a reader, or potential reader. Or the random person sitting on the bus or plane beside you might be another writer, or work for a publisher or retailer you are interested in fostering a relationship with. People are more likely to share their negative impression of someone than to pass along praise. So, it is easy to make a bad impression and far more difficult to make a positive one.
As a bookseller and retail representative, I can tell you that I have gone out of my way to promote, push and share titles from authors whose behavior either towards me, or my witnessing of the way they treated others is professional, courteous and respectful. And on the flip-side I have purposely ignored, deleted messages from and even actively shared “warnings” to colleagues about those I have dealt with who are difficult, disrespectful and unprofessional. Which one of those would you rather be seen as by a bookseller?
No matter how people interact with you, or who they are, your behavior, actions and the things you say should reflect professionalism. You never know who is watching.
Or, more aptly, assume that everyone is watching all the time — and behave accordingly.
Adversity and Rejection
Rejection comes in many ways to writers.
In traditional publishing, it usually comes in the response to a submission. But in self-publishing, and even in traditional publishing, rejection can come in the form of negative reviews.
One thing to consider, and something I learned from fellow author Kerrie Flanagan, was that the work was not rejected. It, most likely, was merely something that was not right for that editor at that time, or, in the case of a negative review, that the reader wasn’t the ideal target audience for that writing. Kerrie doesn’t even like to use the word rejection. She feels it is too harsh and carries far too many negative connotations. But regardless, the truth is that you are not being personally rejected. Your writing is. That specific book, story or article is being rejected. And it is usually because there is a mismatch between the writer and the reader.
Common advice for authors is to never read the reviews of their books on sites like Goodreads or Amazon. It is good advice. And responding to reviews in any way, even in what you believe is a positive way, can easily be misinterpreted as you being a “defensive” author with thin skin.
But sometimes, if a writer learns how to accept or handle rejection or negative reviews, they can use that to further develop either their writing or their business practices.
I’ll share two examples from my own experience. One from traditional publishing and another from self-publishing.
Early in my writing submission days, my desire was to have one of my horror stories appear in the respected and award-winning Northern Frights anthology series edited by Don Hutchison. Year after year I would submit stories to Don. And, year after year, he would reject the stories, often writing a line or two about what it was about the story that didn’t work for him.
Don is a brilliant editor. He could, quite effectively, in just one or two sentences, point out something that a good developmental editor often helps a writer turn a good story into an excellent one. So, I often reflected upon Don’s comments and applied them in a revision to the story. And, often, I ended up selling that story to another editor after following Don’s advice.
Years later, and the first time I met Don at a book launch event in Toronto, he recognized my name and the first thing he said to me was: “Ah yes, Mark Leslie. I remember your stories. I’m sorry we never connected on any of them.”
“Please don’t be sorry,” I replied. “In fact, I wanted to thank you. Because the comments you wrote back helped me revise and sell those stories to other markets. Your rejections have actually helped me improve my writing and helped my career as a writer.”
I’m pretty sure that Don’s impression of me improved upon that encounter. It’s not often that an editor will ever hear a writer share something positive that came from having their work rejected.
Many years ago, I created a digital chapbook of a couple of previously published short stories about snowmen that were often well-received and adored by readers. I packaged them under the title Snowman Shivers: Scary Snowmen Tales and made it a perma-free title in order to attract new readers to my work. Over the years it received plenty of both positive and negative reviews. And, while I typically take negative reviews with a grain of salt, I did notice something in one of them. It said that the stories were well-written, but the stories were more dark humor than scary.
I realized that I had unintentionally misled readers or created the wrong impression. That reviewer was right. The tales were more Twilight Zone than horror, and, while they were indeed eerie, there was a strong undertone of dark humor to them. So, in mid 2018, I revised the eBook and updated the subtitle to something very specific and in line with the actual content. It is now called Snowman Shivers: Two Dark Humor Tales About Snowmen. My goal was to ensure that I didn’t mislead or misrepresent the title and have the wrong reader picking it up expecting one thing but then getting another. And, ever since making that update, the downloads of this title have increased, and the accompanying reviews are from people whose expectations were more likely in line with the actual product.
Yes, reading negative reviews can be difficult, and responding to them in any way is something that is best avoided. But being able to step back and look at the review with a critical eye about how to make either the product, or the representation of that product, better, can be helpful. But only if you are able to step back and look at it, not as the creative writer with a heart of glass, but as the professional who is always striving to become better.
This is a slightly modified version of the chapter “Professionalism” from the book The 7 P’s of Publishing Success.