A friend recently said to me, "Your novel STILL isn't published? I know someone who wrote his first book in half a year and it only took him a couple of months to get it published. He gave me an autographed copy. I have it right here."
I waited while she dug up the book in question and handed it to me. One look at the cover and I knew what I was going to find, but I flipped it open anyway. Sure enough. I handed the volume back to my friend. "This book was self-published."
"No, it's not," she said. "We asked him. He told us he gets royalties and everything."
I tried to explain that the author of her autographed "first edition" had to front the editing and publishing costs in order to produce the book she was holding. I could tell I hadn't convinced her and, after a few minutes, dropped the subject.
There is so much about the writing field that people don't understand. In the two years I've actually been calling myself a writer, I've found that most folks think you sit down, turn out a novel, send it off and then wait for the checks to pour in. To be honest, I probably thought the same thing when I first started to dream of writing as a career. The reality is a lot different.
I was chatting with another writer recently at a meeting. I mentioned that I was trying to get my website up and running.
She sighed heavily and said, "I can remember when all writers had to do was write. Now they have to be computer programmers and marketing experts, too. I got into this business to write. That's all I want to do."
I didn't say anything, but found myself wondering if a pilot would ever say, "All I want to do is fly. I didn't get into this business to learn about weather patterns." Or perhaps a chef: "I got into this business to cook. I don't want to learn about nutrition."
The truth is that producing your first novel is only part of the process. Admittedly, it's a very big part of the process. Dan Poynter's website quotes a statistic that 81% of the population believe they have a book inside them. The vast majority of these people will never write "the end" on anything.
But, once you've done that, you begin the second part of the gauntlet: getting your work published. To do this, you need to completely change gears. Instead of focusing on the solitary activity of writing, you need to move in larger, more social circles (actually, it helps if you start this process BEFORE you finish your novel).
At a minimum, you need to find a critique group to help you edit and to provide support when the rejection letters start to arrive, and a professional group that specializes in your genre (Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, etc.) to help you network within your corner of the industry. Additionally, you need to make the effort to learn the basics of publishing and to discover who the players are in your world. My recommendation is Publishers Marketplace. I began by subscribing to their free Publishers Lunch, but quickly switched to the paid subscription. After about eight months with them, I have an index box listing agents and publishers. I have a list of my "dream agents" in numeric order. I've checked these agents against the Writers Market, Google and the "Editors and Preditors" website.
I chose to enter five contests that I selected very carefully. I did well in those contests and used that success to approach the first agent on my list. I mailed my package off last month and she and I have been in contact via email since. I'm not sitting around in the meantime. I've got the next three letters to agents ready to go. I'm also preparing for what I hope will be the next stage in the process: post-published marketing. I've been blogging for about four months now. I started out anonymously on another site and switched to this site a couple of weeks ago. I'm also building a website--bit by bit.
Bottom line, you can be a writer. However, in order to become a successful writer, you need to be prepared to do whatever is necessary (professionally, of course) to further your career dreams. There are no shortcuts (subsidy publishing, self-publishing or vanity press notwithstanding).
Think of it like that last line on most job descriptions: "And other duties as required."