In September, I ended up unexpectedly seeing a former fellow University student when I was enjoying myself in the lovely Brantford downtown. We got talking for a few minutes, and she revealed to me that she has spent the last year writing a book. Considering this is very much a dream of mine, I was quite interested in hearing about her journey and attempts to get the book published. What I found out was absolutely cringe worthy, and the perfect example of what not to do in order to achieve financial success through writing. Unfortunately, since I didn't know this person very well, and felt like she probably wouldn't want advice from an amateur, I decided to bite my tongue and say nothing. Immediately after the conversation, I felt guilty holding on to what I had to say. So, I've decided I will attempt to redeem myself in some small way through my blog, by offering the advice now that I should have given in person several months ago.
First, it is incredibly important to actually let you know what my advice pertains to (because usually, advice works best when you know where to apply it). After my acquaintance told me about the book and I asked if she shopped it to publishers, she informed me the last few months (and dollars) had been spent dealing with a lawyer in order to get a copyright. At this point the book is apparently now copyrighted, and the look for a few publishers had started. This is where she told me that she had been in contact with a publisher, and was made aware how much it would cost her to get the book published with them. After the lawyer and this apparent publishing deal, the writer is now going to be several and several thousands in the hole. I was assured this was okay, because she knew her book would not only recoup all the costs back but she has been promised she'll end up making over a hundred thousand dollars on the sales of her book. At this point I was speechless, but I probably should have been full of words. Words of advice. Here is what I should have said.
The first problem is going to a lawyer to get your book copyrighted, and spending the numerous hours and money to get this done. I am sure if you call up any lawyer, they will be more than happy to go through the work to get your masterpiece copyrighted. It is something they can do, and it is really easy money for them. But for the most part, it really is money you should be spending anywhere else (or saving, since you want to be a writer after all). The fact the lawyer is probably leaving out when your plopping down your several thousands of dollars is that once you write or type something down, that written work is your property. The work is already copyrighted, and it is illegal for anyone to copy and steal those exact words (and it costs you a lot less than thousands of dollars).
I am sure a few of you are screaming out, but where is the proof that I wrote this! Well, if you're paranoid someone may take your words of pure wisdom, then there is a few easy steps you can take. If you're writing on your website (or a blog), you can put at the bottom of your site that all the following works are copyrighted along with the handy ©, and after each entry include your name and the year of publication. You're now covered. If you're still uncomfortable there is more actions you can take, but there is no need to be filling the pockets of a fat cat lawyer with thousands of dollars.
In the case of a manuscript for a book, you wouldn't have that lying around on the internet for all that can see, anyway. It is probably safely stowed away on your hard drive, thus even less of a reason to take too much action to copyright it. You finish that work, and you now have the choice to either go hunting for a literary agent or if you want to fly solo, you shop your masterpiece to publishers that accept unagented material.
This leads me to the next problem with what this poor and naive writer had done. When you've created a product, your next step is to sell that product. It isn't for you to pay people to take it from you. To me, that sounds like a rather detrimental business model for financial success. When you're shopping your written material around, what you're doing is trying to sell your manuscript (or at least the right for it to be published -- you should not be selling off your copyright). Garage sales would not exist today if the seller was paying people to take away his crap -- even if maybe that is the way they should be run sometimes. This also means a writer is not destined for much financial prosperity if she pays others to publish her works.
There is vanity presses out there that essentially will publish anything as long as you pay a fee. So, you can then see your lovely hard work turned into a pretty and glossy book. These presses may even give you promises of making thousands and thousands of dollars, and being the big break your writing career needs. The problem is, why would they be overly motivated to sell and promote your work if they already got some money out of it? The even bigger problem is, most books don't sell incredibly well, which means your likelihood of swimming in a sea of hundreds isn't very high. If your manuscript actually is worth thousands and thousands of dollars then it is worth the time and effort to actually try to sell it to a reputable publisher (and not one owned by Dr. Claw or Cobra Commander). Then you hopefully can negotiate a nice advance, and then if your publisher truly believes in your work, then it will be properly promoted and maybe sell at a decent level. Though the reality is, a book rarely makes back its advance, and thus a writer should see that as the only money they'll ever get out of that book. But if you've not got an advance but instead gave one to the publisher, then you're probably just looking at debt.
This is the same policy that should be used if you're looking for an agent too. If an agent is telling you that you have the next Harry Potter on your hands, and all you have to do is plop down a few thousand for his services, then it is time for a flying tiger punch to his eye ball. You should not be paying your agent squat for his services upfront. He gets his money when you sell your manuscript (by agreeing on getting a certain percentage of your advance -- just like a real estate agent). If your work is truly the equivalent of golden fairies dancing in the streets of heaven while gumdrops are farted out of flying unicorns, then you don't need to pay people for it to be agented or published, because they will perceive it will make them money on sales. And if it isn't, then you go back to your computer and edit it until it is.
If you have dreams of making money as a writer, then you need to remember this thing is a business. You need to not be suckered in with promises of fame and fortune, but only after you pay a nominal fee of $5,000. The writing business is like any other business in that there are people who will happily take advantage of your naivety. It is your job to do the research and to know your business. It is also your job to make sure you read and fully understand the contract you're about to sign. But most importantly, it is your job to make sure you're not throwing your money into the wind before you're even earning any (though, probably not good to do that even when you make some).