If you are reading this blog, chances are you’ve written something, and you want to pursue publication. But here’s some advice: don’t jump in right away! If you are hoping to earn credibility as a writer, there’s a lot you can (and probably should) do before making reality out of your publishing dreams. Here are my top five pieces of advice!
1. Write your book. Then rewrite it. Then get feedback from test readers who aren’t afraid to tell you which parts suck. Then, rewrite or revise again.
The first part is obvious. Unless you’ve sold your book to a publisher based on a few sample chapters and an outline (this does happen with nonfiction), you’re going to have to rattle out those words. Know that 50,000 words is probably the minimum you want to go for any “grownup” book, and 120,000 words is probably the max, unless you are J.K. Rowling. When you’ve finished a draft, take a red pen to it yourself, then rewrite it from scratch while looking at the edited draft. You’ll be shocked at what can happen in this phase! It will help you tighten up plot points, themes, and general consistency. The feedback you’ll get from test readers after this step will be more valuable than if you sent them a first draft, because you’ll already have done your best to fix any flaws. Your test readers might see problems you didn’t, and they might raise questions you never thought of. Once you figure out which suggestions are worth heeding, you’ll have new tools to help subsequent revisions. After a few rounds of this, your manuscript will start to sparkle!
2. Read some of the great editor and agent blogs out there!
It may serve you well to do this concurrently with #1. Whether you want to pursue a traditional publishing deal or self-publish, your writing absolutely will improve if you learn what attracts industry bigwigs to a manuscript. The first agent blog I ever read “cover to cover” was that of Miss Snark, and it forever changed the way I think about writing and selling books. I also learned crazy amounts from Nathan Bransford, BookEnds LLC, and Kristin Nelson. You’ll learn how to gut your book into a single paragraph (which you’ll have to to do anyway for the back cover synopsis), how to grab readers on the first page, and how to blend passion with product. If you hope to release a book that sells, read these now! Note that some of these blogs are finished, and you’ll have to read backward through the archives.
3. Learn all you can about the publishing business!
When I decided to write my first book (which is still currently in its eleventh or twelfth draft), I knew nothing about the actual publishing business. I did my Googling, learned a hell of a lot by reading agent and editor blogs (see #2!), and thought I had a good idea what I was in for. When I decided to treat my fourth written novel The Breeders as an experiment and publish it independently, I realized just how much I still didn’t know. I almost worked myself into the ground learning how to design print and electronic books, how trade discounts and the returns system worked, and how to navigate the available options for international print and electronic distribution. Whether you publish traditionally or independently, learn about the business upfront! It will save you from surprises and disappointments down the line, and it’ll give you a leg up on figuring out your strategy.
4. Realize that the work is just beginning!
If you are aiming to gain respect and make a name for yourself, your work will go well beyond publishing. Selling your book will require people to know about it. If you don’t have a traditional publisher that offers help with marketing, you’ll have a lot to do: writing press releases, sending your book out for reviews, building a website, building and maintaining your social media presence, and creating custom graphics for business cards, flyers, or the web. This is before you try to sell in bookstores or seek out that miraculous celebrity who will promote your book and catapult you to fame. Sometime during all this, you may want to write another book. If you are balancing all this with a day job, it can quickly become overwhelming. (I learned this the hard way.) Just prepare for it before you publish, and set standards for yourself to maintain a life balance!
5. Gauge your options!
Gone are the days when your only option to publish is to wait for an agent or editor to love your book, all while you sit on your bum, craving validation and wondering if you’ll ever make anything of yourself. These days, if you are talented, driven, and can afford to hire editing and design help, you can independently publish a book that is just as good as anything coming out of New York. Even so, it can be extremely difficult, and you’ll probably have only a fraction of the marketing power a traditional publisher could offer. You probably won’t have the clout to shop around your book’s film and foreign publishing rights, and getting it into brick and mortar bookstores will also be difficult. So, as stated in #3, learn about the business. Figure out if you’d rather sit and wait for your big break or if you’d rather make it happen yourself. No route is set in stone, and it will be an adventure either way!