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Finding Success as a Writer and Becoming a Bestselling Author
I'm Robert Stanek and today I'm writing about finding success as a writer and becoming a bestseller. In 1995, I attended a writer’s conference on Maui, hosted at the swanky Ritz-Carlton Kapalua. I’d just signed my first contract with Macmillan after years of trying to break in to publishing as a writer. Unlike most other attendees, I didn’t stay at the Ritz-Carlton—the hotel wasn’t something I could afford at the time. On a military salary, with a wife and toddler accompanying me, the best I could afford was a $79 a night room a few miles away, and the only reason I could afford to get to Maui in the first place was because I was stationed on Oahu, where I worked at the hush-hush NSA facility Edward Snowden made famous.
The conference was mostly about breaking in as a writer, with seminars on writing, getting agents, getting published and such. I felt a little like the cat who swallowed the canary, as I’d already managed to land a contract. It wasn’t something I’d say in the crowd I’d found myself in, many of whom were rather snobby and elitist, certain they were the best writer in the world and that their big break was just around the corner.
The conference went poorly and I ended up skipping big parts of it to spend time with my wife and son instead. Nonetheless, attendance taught me some valuable lessons, especially about how much I disliked snobby elitists. I also decided sitting around talking about writing for hours and hours was a colossal waste of time. Instead of talking about writing, I would instead just write.
And just write I did. My first book, Electronic Publishing Unleashed, was 1031 pages in print and I wrote 800 pages of it over a 4-month period while also working full-time in the military. The other 200 pages of the book were written by contributors, one of which was originally supposed to be the author of the book, but for one reason or another wasn’t able to produce what was required. Meanwhile, the acquisitions editor loved my work and kept expanding my role in the book until I was its author and the others were contributors.
Electronic Publishing Unleashed was published in September 1995 to great success and I signed a contract for a second book with Macmillan almost immediately. This book, Web Publishing Unleashed, was entirely my project from start to finish. The book was written to a tight schedule, and I wrote as much of it as I dared as quickly as I could: again 800 pages over a 4-month period. I hand selected the contributors to round out the content and the book was published in March 1996 to even bigger success than the first.
Meanwhile, I was at a crossroads in my military career. I’d earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees while in Hawaii and my commanders were recommending me for Officers Training School (OTS). As one of the most decorated soldiers in the unit and a frequently recognized top performer, I knew most of the top brass and they knew me. After OTS, I could have any job I wanted in the military. But then there was this writing thing.
You’d think my initial success in writing would make the answer an easy one. That second book was a blockbuster bestseller from the start. It was selling like snow cones during a heat wave. But the answer wasn’t an easy one. I’d written Electronic Publishing Unleashed as a work for hire, meaning I received no royalties, even though the book had over $2.5 million in sales. I’d written Web Publishing Unleashed as a royalty contract, but I had received a very low rate, even with an agent. How low? Less than 1/2 the industry standard rate, and then since I’d signed up with an agent, he was going to get 1/5th of that.
Worse, I wouldn't receive my first royalty check for some time. It takes months for royalty payments to make it to authors. Books are published, shipped to stores. Stores pay based on sales, typically in 90 days or so, and in 90 days or so after getting paid, publishers pay authors. Still, my publisher loved my work and was in the process of signing me to three new contracts for FrontPage Unleashed, Peter Norton’s Guide to Java Programming and Web Publishing Unleashed Professional Reference Edition.
Thus, when I decided to leave the military in June 1996, I had no idea where I was going to go or even if I would actually ever get paid royalties. My wife, son and I ended up in a tiny apartment in Oregon. Still waiting for that first royalty payment and living off the dregs of advances, I wrote all three books in the apartment manager’s back room. The tiny apartment wasn’t big enough for writing, and my wife’s sister and her daughter had joined us in Oregon and moved in with us as well. Fortunately, the building manager graciously offered me the writing space, where I was cooped up 16 hours a day working to finish all those books.
How we ended up in Oregon? I'm not really sure myself. It is where Peter Norton was. Perhaps at the time I thought since I was writing Peter Norton’s Guide to Java Programming with Peter Norton he’d actually be working with me on the book. As it turned out, I never even got to meet Peter and his contribution to the book was nothing more than his name even though he received half the royalties. Peter Norton’s Guide to Java Programming was published in July 1996.
By this time, offers from other publishers were pouring in. One in particular that intrigued me was from PC Magazine. They were looking for a regular contributor to write technology articles about the Internet, the Web and related technologies. Exactly the space I worked in. I was up to my ears in books, but how could I or anyone else possibly turn down $1+ a word?! I took the offer and started writing regularly for the magazine.
After a few months in Oregon, the family and I moved on to Washington state, and the wait began anew for the first royalty check to reach me. However, I finally did have advances in hand for the three books I’d written. The publisher had made a special effort to get the payments to me and I’d also finalized two new contracts for FrontPage 97 Unleashed and Netscape ONE Developer’s Guide.
Those payments paid for a U-Haul and helped secure a larger apartment in Olympia, which was about 8 hours or so away from where we lived in Oregon. My wife’s sister and her daughter were still living with us, so we really needed the big space. While we were there, FrontPage Unleashed was published (September 1996) and I was already hard at work on the other books and writing for PC Magazine.
The new apartment was nice enough, but still not a home for my family, and still rather crowded with my wife's sister and her daughter living with my family. Nonetheless, we settled in and I worked. My writing space was in the master bedroom, so I had the difficult task of crawling out of bed to a chair a few feet away every morning where I wrote through the day and into the evening.
For months, the rapid succession of contracts, delays from the publisher, delays from my agents (I was with Studio B by this time) and other things had all been between me and ever getting paid my first royalty check for all the work I was doing. That check seemed some sort of myth by this time, so I was unsure if I'd ever receive it and rather certain I'd made a horrendous mistake by leaving the military.
Just about the time every cent we had ran out and our options were running out, a check finally arrived. The check was for the first royalty book I’d written, which had been published in March of that year. It was now September.
In the military, I barely made enough to get by. I’d finished college and earned my degrees only because my wife worked overtime to help pay the tuition. The check I was holding in my hand was two year’s military salary. I nearly fell over. It’d taken months to get to me, but there it was. Proof that I’d done something right.
To say that we celebrated that night is an understatement, but we weren't able to go out anywhere or do anything special. It takes days for a paper check to clear, especially when it's made out for a huge amount of money, and the one credit card we had was maxed out already. Still, we celebrated.
The next month, October, my wife’s sister and daughter moved out. With writing seeming like a sure thing for the future, my wife and I started looking for a house. We found one right away and by early November we moved in. It was our first house. We quickly made it a home.
There are a big surprise for us soon after, and just in time for Thanksgiving: another royalty check.
I was upstairs working in the office when my wife brought it to me. She’d opened the letter and from her expression I wasn’t quite sure whether it was extremely good news or extremely bad news.
At my hesitation, my wife said, It's good news, really good news.
And it was. I’d never seen that much money in my life, yet there it was on a check written out to me.
I was stunned, shocked.
My wife gave me a big kiss and wrap her arms around me. We stood like that for the longest time, just reveling in the moment. It was a measure of my success as a writer. A success as wild as any I ever imagined.
The books I had been working on were published shortly after. Web Publishing Unleashed Professional Reference Edition in December 1996, FrontPage 97 Unleashed in January 1997 and Netscape ONE Developer’s Guide in March 1997. Altogether, those early books had many millions in sales at retail, exceeding even the wildest of my wildest dreams. In your own writing, dare to dream. You never know what might happen. Thanks for reading, Robert Stanek