The most common questions I get from folks inquiring about my writing coaching services aren’t about writing.
Most people who have written or who want to write a book already write to some extent, probably with some amount of skill. They likely believe completing the manuscript is their strength, or at least something they can figure out along the way, and they probably believe it’s the easiest part of their publishing process.
So, once some new authors get to the part where they’re considering outside help, they are already thinking beyond the manuscript. They have moved on to that imposing question we all face…
What do I do when it’s done?
Their head swimming with the mere notion of literary agents and query drafts, they ask if I have any advice for them. My response is to say the portion of the process beyond writing and editing isn’t my area of expertise. Like many, I’m figuring it out as I go along. That said, I have some tidbits to offer based on my own experience and research.
This is not even close to an exhaustive list of things a new author needs to know, but it contains the reminders I find most valuable as I go through the publishing process myself. And it’s usually enough of a reality check to propel writers new to this world to make some crucial decisions.
- Slow down. You’re probably not as done as you think you are.
First-time authors are notoriously full of hubris, and likely a bit naïve, which feeds the hubris. This is said with love and empathy, but it’s the truth. Completing a book is no small task, and everyone who does this should be proud and pleased. But it may or may not be the perfect tome you believe it to be. The process of getting it where it needs to be to compete with all the other books clamoring for limited publishing space will be challenging, and even the most experienced authors need lots of help along the way.
This wake-up call will happen. There’s no avoiding it. And, it’s a good thing. The most effective way to accomplish it is to attend a writer’s conference, talk to lots of people and even pay for feedback from an editor or agent if this is offered. You’ll come out the other side feeling a bit squashed, but much more savvy and wise. Any amount of research online or a browse through the writing and publishing advice section at your local bookstore may offer a similar experience.
The most valuable thing I learned was slow down. Edit your manuscript. Now edit it again. Now edit it again. Have friends or colleagues who are writers and/or avid readers and will be honest with you read it and send you their observations and reactions. Join a (good) writer’s workshop if that’s available or appealing to you. Now have at least one reputable professional editor critique and/or edit it. Take the time to thoughtfully and sincerely consider everyone’s comments and get a little time away from the manuscript. Now read it like you’ve never seen it before and edit and rewrite as necessary. Now have someone proofread it. Now go through it again and make sure it’s as good as you know how to make it before you even think of sending out queries.
The biggest mistake new authors make is rushing. Or assuming their publisher or agent or an e-book reader will forgive major story flaws, amateurish writing or errors made because they were in a hurry to get it out into the market.
Take your time to create the book you can send out without a moment’s hesitation. Most publishers will only publish books that meet the high standards they and most readers have—quality writing, engaging content, and a unique voice and/or perspective being some of the biggies. They can teach you some of the rest (even if they don’t want to), but they can’t and won’t teach you how to write.
- It may be more than you thought you were getting into.
The industry is evolving rapidly, mostly due to the advent of e-books and social media marketing. Even some of the larger houses are still in the process of catching up and are cutting budgets, advances and staff. This means their sales expectations are typically high, which means they have a narrowing view of what books are worthy of their investment, which means you must meet some pretty specific criteria to be published by them. This does not mean your book isn’t good or even great. It just means they aren’t convinced it will sell with minimal effort and expense.
There are a lot of specialty and small publishing houses, which is where you (or your agent) may have better luck. But just like the larger houses, they are tightening their belts, offering little to no advances and asking for extensive rights to your book and often future work.
Before approaching any agent or publisher, you must have a strong sense of how to market your book and a willingness to do the vast majority yourself.
To that end, you will need a stellar query letter and a solid marketing proposal. You can find great advice and some good examples of these documents both online and in the myriad of books about them. I often tell new authors to start with Writer’s Market’s online subscription content, then figure out for themselves the experts and lists that are most helpful to them. There also are some professionals who specialize in getting you through this part of the process. (Here are links to Rabid Badger and Author Biz Consulting, as examples of folks who are happy to help.)
You will be expected to have not only a detailed idea of who will want to buy your book and how to reach them, but already have an impressive number of them in the hopper via social media, blog followers, podcast/newsletter/website/YouTube subscribers, radio show listeners and TV viewers, students/clients/customers, etc. The magic number will vary depending on the size of the house you or your potential agent approach.
At minimum, if you don’t already have a blog, start one and start promoting it more assertively. If you haven’t signed up for Twitter or don’t have a website or Facebook page related to your book or its content, get that going. There’s a ton more to talk about here, but it’s not my wheelhouse and it would take days to detail all the potential outlets and offer advice about the best ways to market via the web and social media. A good Google search will reveal the many, many much more qualified professionals and resources that are happy to offer advice along these lines.
- Know your book and why it is worth it.
The benefit of being forced to write a great query and marketing plan is that you have a built-in opportunity to soul search. It’s also a necessary business-oriented wake-up call, don’t get me wrong, and an opportunity to figure out how (and maybe if) this is all going to work. But it also is an opportunity to commit to words, as briefly as possible, why this book is worthy of your attention and the attention of potential readers.
[A quick note: If you’re in it for the money, stop reading and go find some other outlet for your energy, time and hard-earned cash.]
Why are you passionate about this story or topic?
Why is your perspective or story unique?
Why are you willing to commit to the publishing process knowing there likely isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
What will readers get from this book and why is it important for them to get it?
Are you propelled by vanity and ego, or do you have something meaningful to say?
Are you willing and able to speak openly and authoritatively about everything in your book to whomever will listen?
Bottom line: What is your intention, are you able to carry it off, and is it enough to sustain you through what will be months of pounding the literary pavement?
- Don’t be afraid to do it on your own, but do it well and go in with your eyes wide open.
If you don’t think you can or you don’t want to do it in a way that satisfies the traditional publishing industry, you have options. Self-publishing is more respectable and a lot easier to do well than it used to be. Depending on how you do it, it allows you to keep all of the rights and all or most of the profit.
I recommend doing it with an eye toward quality and professionalism. That means more than putting it on Amazon for a couple of dollars. If you don’t know how or you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, there are professionals and services to help you do everything from cover design and e-book formatting to setting up virtual book tours, depending on how much you’re willing to spend.
It’s a lot of work, but if the intention for the book and your commitment to it is strong enough, it can be done and done successfully. Ingrid Ricks self-published her memoir Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story and ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list for e-book nonfiction. Then it was picked up by Penguin Random House’s Berkeley Books. More on this fascinating and inspiring story here (Ingrid Ricks’s Great Escape).
That said, self-publishing also is not for the faint-hearted. More than 400,000 books are self-published every year. A great article on the reality of self-publishing can be found here (What Your Friends Can’t Tell You About Your Self-Published Book).
- Believe that you will reach who you’re meant to reach.
This is a lot. I know. I can feel all of your heads being cradled in your now-clammy and overwhelmed hands. Once I offer various versions of this advice to current or potential clients, some lose heart. That’s okay. There are no wrong choices. The good news is that if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve probably got the goods to make a go of it.
If you believe you are meant to reach people with the message of your book, then you are. They are there. Every book has an audience. Every book with positive intentions affects someone positively. Even if you have a message that’s been offered before, it has never before been offered by you. Because you haven’t said it yet, there are some who haven’t been able to hear it yet. If you’re okay with the notion that it may only be a few dozen people hearing it instead of 100,000, then I encourage you to move forward.
- Enjoy it. Own it.
What we focus on is what we cultivate. Though the reality check of the post-writing publishing process can be a jagged pill at first, especially for typically introverted writers, it also can be extremely gratifying and even joyful. Allow yourself to fully experience it and even like it.
See the feedback and editing process as a master class in writing.View the query process as a creative exercise and opportunity to own and spread the energy of your book. See the rejections and non-responses as preparation for the inevitable (but hopefully rare) negative reader reviews. Approach the marketing process as an opportunity to affect people directly and get immediate feedback, not just a necessary evil.
Along those lines, don’t be afraid to spread the good news about your book. No matter the outcome, it’s a great accomplishment, so own it. Once you’ve gone through this process, you should have the language to do just that, and do so genuinely, comfortably and confidently.
Remember, speaking well of your book and your expertise doesn’t mean your ego has taken over the henhouse and suddenly you’re a braggadocios rooster. When you do it with heart it just means you believe in your work and you know it’s worthy of being read and discussed.
And you know what? You’re right.
Rebecca is an author, copywriter, writing coach and editor. Find out more about that here and here. Her next book, titled the same as her blog, will be available in 2016. Find out more about that here.