So I haven’t blogged in a while, and here’s part of the reason. I only try to blog when I have something important to say, something from which you, the reader, might benefit, and I don’t feel as if I’ve had anything vital to impart for quite some time.
But that’s okay. I’d rather be silent than clutter your life with yet another blog post that extolls the virtues of writing, or focuses on an element of fiction-writing that will undoubtedly improve your work and land you on the list of New York Times bestselling authors.
I’ve been writing full-time for seven or eight years now, and I’ve learned some things along the way about the world of publishing. I want to pass them on to you in the hope that they help.
Let me start with a couple of caveats. First, what I’m about to say applies to me, but that doesn’t mean it applies to you. As a wise man once said, “Be wary of advice, even this.” If there was one sure-fire way to become a successful writer it would be copyrighted and sold for a very high price on Amazon—probably even available for same-day shipping. I don’t claim to have any such insight; all I’m sharing are my personal experiences.
Second, these lessons are geared to writers in the early stage of their career, especially those trying to publish their first novel. In this post I’ll discuss three lessons. There are more, but I’ll save them for another time. So, here we go:
- Unless you’re a well-known commodity, no one—except maybe your mom and a few close friends—could care less that you published a book.
I know this sucks and is hurtful to hear. And I also know that your book could be an exception, but the reality is that it will most likely be lost in the sea of books published every day. Yes, I realize your prose is brilliant and your plot masterfully constructed. I know you’ve spent a long, long time writing your book and that you’ve sacrificed a lot to make your dream come true. You may have even given up watching your favorite TV shows in order to devote more time to your writing, and told your friends that you just can’t hang out with them because you’re committed to your craft. Maybe you’ve withstood the glaring looks that come from loved ones as you sit at your computer day after laborious day cranking out your novel.
But the quicker you realize this, the sooner you become more realistic about your expectations. Once your book becomes available on Amazon, people aren’t just going to flock to it because they’re drawn to your brilliance or because they like your dazzling cover. This isn’t Field of Dreams, where if you write it, they will come. It’s more like the bog of disappointment, where you soon realize that you can’t give up your day job, travel extensively, and become a barefoot writer just because you’ve published a novel.
- Chances are extremely good that your manuscript is not ready for publication yet, especially if you’re self-publishing.
I can’t hammer this home enough. In fact, I was going to use caps for this bullet point, but I didn’t want to scream at you. This is not an argument to run right out and hire a content/copy editor. In my experience few, if any, are worth their weight in gold, contrary to testimonials on their websites.
There are two main components to a novel: the story itself and the writing, which includes style and grammar. If you want your book to sell, you must master both elements. If you’re submitting to an agent or directly to a publisher, unless you’ve executed both story and writing superbly (or you have personal connections), your story will be rejected. While crushingly disappointing, this at least saves you the embarrassment of self-publishing a disastrous piece of writing that will garner you all the unwarranted attention of someone farting loudly in a You Tube video.
Many Twitter and Facebook proclamations notwithstanding, not everything you write glimmers, nor are you—and this one really irks me—already a great writer. It usually takes years to become a great writer, which, for our purposes, we’ll define as writing something people pay to read.
But here’s the good news: You have at your disposal tools to improve your manuscript and make it more marketable. (Note: My goal in publishing a book has changed from writing a book that will become the basis of a major motion picture to publishing something that doesn’t embarrass me.) What are those tools?
Good books to read and something to write with. Yes, that is what it takes to become a good writer and to write a good book—reading and writing: a lot of both. Now, some of those good books you read might include books on the craft of writing, but be careful here. Don’t fall into the trap I’ve often fallen into: reading books on writing as opposed to writing a book. Despite the vast quantity of books on writing, very few are essential reading. Please save yourself enormous time by focusing on the handful of books that truly are worthwhile, and contact me if you have any questions/concerns. Reading and writing good books can help tremendously in designing your story and improving the way you tell it (i.e., style). In terms of of grammar mistakes and typos, there is no substitute for going through your work over and over and over again until you get it as right as humanly possible.
- Whether to go with an agent, a small press, or to self-publish is much less of a choice than many people suppose.
I don’t know how many posts I’ve seen on Facebook concerning this issue. Here’s the lowdown on what I’ve discovered, may it save you a lot of time and worry. If you want to sell books, it’s best to have a reputable agent who can submit your work to a major publishing house. In fact, in the overwhelming majority of cases, this is the only way to sell a lot of books. Very few writers land an agent with their first book, which makes perfectly good sense. It’s only after you’ve proven that you can write well over a sustained period of time that a good agent will consider representing you. Think of yourself as an artist—the better and more extensive your portfolio, the better your odds of exhibiting at a major art gallery. So, a credited agent at a reputable agency is the gold standard for writers who want to sell books.
If you fail to secure representation after querying several agents (“several” can mean hundreds depending on your genre), and odds are good that you will fail, you have two major options: self-publishing or going with a small press. Before discussing these in a little more detail, I should mention a third option: You can hire a company (i.e., Book Baby) to publish and market your book. But this essentially amounts to vanity publishing and it’s not something I recommend unless you have a bunch of money—and we’re talking thousands of dollars—that you don’t mind losing. You should never pay anyone to publish your book unless you are doing it for friends and family or simply to scratch “publish a book” from your bucket list.
That having been said, I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learned concerning self-publishing and small presses. Regarding the self-publishing revolution, the good news is that anyone can publish a book; the bad news is that anyone can publish a book. While technically it’s true that anyone can publish a book, this all too often prevents people asking themselves the equally important question of whether they should. This is a little like Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum’s character points out that scientists were so busy determining if they could raise creatures from dino-DNA that they failed to ask themselves the even more important question of whether they should do so. The result, in terms of book publications, has been the glutting of the market with egregious products, which only serves to hinder those trying to do and sell quality work.
But let’s assume that despite your story being great, your writing compelling, and your typos non-existent, you still can’t get an agent. When reaching this point, many writers decide to self-publish. After all, the reasoning goes, self-publishing allows you to maintain control over your work, including the cover, the price, and—most importantly—the profits. All of this is true. Unfortunately, after talking to many self-published authors, I have found that all too often this amounts to a lot of control over essentially nothing (in terms of profits). There are, of course, exceptions—a few people have written and self-published books that went on to make money. But it seems that unless you already have a significant following, self-publishing rarely yields the desired result.
Being published by a reputable small press falls somewhere in the middle of having an agent and publishing your own work. My first, literary novel, Conversations Among Ruins, was published by a small press. The first two books in my political-religious thriller series—The Brothers’ Keepers and Killing John the Baptist—are also published by a (different) small press. What do you get when you’re published by a small press? In most cases you get a free cover and free editing services, and freedom from such logistical concerns as formatting and uploading, pricing, and keeping track of sales. You also get the backing of the publisher, which includes their name and reputation. In my case, I submitted The Brothers’ Keepers to Melange Books because I knew they were a publisher accepted by International Thriller Writers (ITW), an organization I wanted to join. Once my novel was accepted by Melange, I applied to ITW and was accepted. The following year I submitted The Brothers’ Keepers to Bookbub for their consideration and was accepted for a promotion and sold thousands of books in a very short time period. Though I have no hard data to support this, I believe Melange’s association with ITW helped pave the way to the Bookbub deal.
The downside to being published by a small press, in comparison to being published by one of the Big 5, is that you’re essentially responsible for your own marketing and you don’t get the exposure you would if you were published by, say, Random House. You also don’t see the same percentage of revenue from book sales because the small press takes their cut.
One final route to publication should be mentioned. This is the option of submitting your work directly to an imprint of one of the Big 5 (e.g., Alibi, Tor, etc.). You don’t need an agent to do this, and my guess is that you’d get more exposure with one of these imprints than you would a small press/indie publisher. Click here for more information on this option. I think it’s definitely something worth considering and deserves more investigation on your part if you choose to go this route.
Personally, in descending order of preference, I would rank the various paths to publication as follows: 1) securing an agent and being published by one of the Big 5; 2) being published by an imprint of one of the Big 5; 3) being published by a small, reputable press; 4) self-publishing; 5) vanity publishing. One final hint: if you decide to try to get an agent, Query Tracker is an excellent place to start.
I’ll stop for now because this has become a long post. I hope you’ve found what I’ve said helpful. As always, I’m eager to hear your thoughts, comments, and experiences.
All the best,