After more than 20 years of toiling in the publishing industry in some capacity — author, coach, book editor, small-press founder, newspaper editor — I remain heartened at how many people seek publication for their work and derive great joy from their craft. But I’m often dismayed at the frequently bad advice I see on social media. So I’ve developed a list of the top 12 things I wish authors knew — and by authors I mean writers of long-form fiction seeking commercial publishing contracts.
Writing novels is hard. Brutally hard. And the process requires a well-honed skill for writing a bunch of related short stories (i.e., “chapters”) that cohere within a larger narrative. It also demands a certain gift for the language that borders — dare I say it? — on the lyrical.
If your long-term goal is to write novels, master the art of writing flash fiction, poetry, and short stories first. Develop personal essays and creative non-fiction pieces. Fine-tune your writing with short stuff before you try to tackle a 250,000-word space opera right out of the gate. Your author blog is a great place for some of this content to find a home while helping you build a platform.
Consider: When you sign up for a pottery class, do you expect that your very first project will entail a 12-foot-tall ceramic statue of your three pets at play? Hardly. You’ll start with a simple vase or a mug, and then as you gain skill you’ll work yourself up to bigger and better things. Writing is the same way. It’s curious that so many people recognize how hard writing is, yet they simultaneously think they’re competent to craft a publication-worthy novel as the very first thing they’ve ever produced.
In The Diction Dude Essential Guide to Getting Started as a Professional Writer, I outline a year-long couch-to-5K approach to noveling that requires participants to start with flash and poetry and short stories and even a novelette before moving on to more complex work. These shorter lengths serve as building blocks for more advanced projects. Plus, after they’re polished, they make great submission candidates for literary journals and anthologies — all the better to earn writing credits that make your eventual novel pitch taste all the sweeter.
Don’t be in a hurry to publish.
The odds your debut novel with a major press will be the first novel you’ve ever written are vanishingly slim. A first (or a second or a third) novel still reflects a lack of polish that comes from being early work product.
Most seasoned authors keep a secret file in the back of a dusty cabinet somewhere that contains the first half-dozen unpublished books they wrote. Those projects are called training manuscripts. Just as your first few vases in pottery class will be lumpy and misshapen, so also will your first few manuscripts evidence deep structural and syntactical flaws you won’t see when you craft them, because you’re still new to the discipline of writing. I penned six of these so-so drafts. They’ll never see the light of day, but writing them immeasurably improved my skill at long-form fiction.
The purpose of writing is to write — not to write for publication. Don’t be hasty. Enjoy the ride. Assume that the first half-dozen novels you fine-tune won’t be ready for prime time, but Lucky No. 7 will be best positioned to land you a contract. Obviously, individual results vary, but if you assume that the first novel you write is good enough for a book contract, you will likely be destined for heartbreak.
Yes, you need an agent — except for small presses.
The major New York presses, the kind with a bricks-and-mortar national footprint, require agents; authors cannot pitch them directly. Small presses rarely require agents, and short fiction markets (anthologies, contests, literary journals) never do. When I ran a micro-press, we received a few thousand queries over our five-year journey, but only one of them came through an agent.
The caveat? A small press is a legitimate press, but they offer no meaningful sales reach. A self-published author with hustle can often sell more books than a micro-press team.
Focusing on your goals as a writer is an essential first step to determining whether you should walk a self-publishing path, a small-press path, or an agented national-press path. Each journey places different burdens on the writer, with varying trade-offs. A clear-eyed understanding of how your goals related to publication channels is essential to avoiding the industry’s dream crusher.
Ignore the echo chamber.
Consider the source of your advice. I often see on Reddit (and less often, on Twitter) a bunch of people crowdsourcing double-plus-ungood guidance about creative writing or the business of publishing. Inevitably, when I weigh in, I get downvoted or ignored because most people don’t want to hear what works — instead, they want warm-fuzzy encouragement suggesting that their path of least resistance isn’t as futile as it actually is.
Here’s the thing. If you follow the advice of a cluster of unpublished or self-published writers with no background in the industry, you’ll eventually end up where they are — unpublished or self-published. After all, every system is perfectly engineered to deliver the results you obtain, so you’re likely to resemble the people you mimic. Likewise, if you follow certain high-profile Literary Twitter types, you’ll encounter a lot of you-can-do-it plaudits but very little countervailing advice about the breadth, depth, and nature of the work you must undertake to “do it” successfully.
Always consider the source of the guidance you receive and take exuberantly upbeat advice with a grain of salt, particularly if it condenses into an aspirational bumper-sticker slogan. Crowdsourcing works great for things like Yelp or Netflix ratings; for thou-shalt or thou-shalt-not advice about craft and business … not so much.
For the best advice, buy books about writing and follow the blogs of various experienced agents and editors.
Pay-to-publish is not normal.
The rule of thumb: Authors sign checks on the back, not the front. The only legitimate use case for a pay-to-publish outfit is for a book without a broad-enough market value to warrant a traditional book contract, written by one or more contributors who lack the technical acumen to self-publish and don’t mind paying someone else to do the work. Something like a church’s centennial cookbook makes a great case study.
If you’re interested in the literary side of being a published author and you think your novel enjoys a theoretically broad national appeal, never pay to publish. You will inevitably lose money on the deal and some presses and agents view a pay-to-publish book as a black mark against your future viability. You’re better off learning how to self-publish, instead; the stigma that once hobbled self-published writers has now mostly vanished.
When you input “how to be an author” in your favorite search engine, you’ll encounter a lot of sweet sirens’ songs about “cost sharing” and “you have a novel within you” and “we can help you market your book.” Ignore it all. It’s almost always a cash-and-rights grab. Unless your book is genuinely hyper niche enough to be financially non-viable for a traditional press, there’s no good reason to pay someone to publish your book.
Critique groups aren’t optional.
Every now and then on Reddit I’ll see something like, “I’m a great writer. Do I really need a critique of my story before I find an agent?”
YES, FOR THE LOVE OF THE FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER, YES TO INFINITY SQUARED.
Every writer — even the most naturally talented or the most formally prepared through MFA programs — remains blind to some X percent of quirks in his or her style, and thus no amount of self-editing will remove them. The more that these defects permeate a manuscript, the less likely it is that an agent or an editor will find it preferable to the cleaner next-best alternative in the slush pile.
Most seasoned gatekeepers sniff out a lone-wolf manuscript within the first 250 words. Often, these stories don’t start in the right place or they lack an opening hook. Also, certain stylistic and syntactical foibles prove more obvious to the reader than to the creator. A well-functioning critique group comprised of writers competent in your length and genre offer an immeasurable boost to the quality of your work. Don’t forego it because you think you’re a good writer; by definition, a “good writer” is one who takes advantage of a critique group.
Doing the minimum rarely lands you a contract.
Black swans are a thing — but expect disappointment if your business strategy requires you to become one. Much of the conventional advice about writing, including around platform building and peer networking, doesn’t admit to a shortcut or a magical get-out-of-jail-free card.
Being a commercially viable published author requires that you’ll engage in market-development activities and professional networking. That work cannot begin after you’ve penned your magnum opus. Latching onto anecdotes to avoid putting in the effort isn’t an optimal success paradigm.
No matter what you’ve heard, platform and marketing will always help you. In rare cases, the lack thereof won’t necessarily hurt you (e.g., with self-published romance e-books), but assuming that you need not bother will undercut you more than help you in the long run.
Gatekeepers seize the first opportunity to remove your pitch from the slush pile.
Most markets enjoy a query-acceptance rate between 2 percent for the more permissive places to something like 0.01 percent (or less!) for prestige markets. Given that almost everything is rejected and the volume of inbound material is so high, agents and editors don’t have the time to read your entire package cover-to-cover.
Most experienced gatekeepers engage in a form of triage where they look for the top dozen or so reasons to reject a manuscript and when they find one, they stop reading. When I routinely engaged in slush vetting, most of my rejections occurred within two minutes of having opened the query. I don’t need to read 300 pages to know that defects on Page One or an incoherent cover letter signal pervasive construction and professional challenges too significant to correct during routine developmental editing.
That’s why nailing your query and working with a critique group matter. The trick of surviving first-pass slush triage isn’t to write a beautiful novel and hope for the best. The quality of the book really doesn’t get a meaningful review until its second-pass examination through a much-reduced long list, after the obvious rejections have been weeded out. To warrant a meaningful review of your book on its literary merits, avoid making the same mistakes in querying that everyone else makes and thus not giving the gatekeeper an easy out for the rejection letter.
Financial viability often matters more than literary beauty.
Except for hyper-niche presses, micro presses, and some non-profit/academic publishers, it’s usually the case that potential contracts undergo something called a provisional profit-and-loss estimate. The P&L assesses the publisher’s all-in expected cost to produce a given book, then offsets it by its expected sales revenue. That revenue is guesstimated by looking at the sales totals of the nearest competitive books (the “comps”) as well as the estimated contribution of the author through the author’s platform — often a mailing list or the Twitter-follower count — to first-quarter sales.
If the P&L comes back as negative, the book probably won’t be contracted, even if it’s a thing of great literary beauty, unless they hope it’ll be a candidate for a major award that would drive sales above and beyond the P&L. Publishers cannot afford to lose money willy-nilly. Conversely, a book with a positive P&L may well be contracted even if the literary quality is a bit on the rough side.
Ignore genre-and-archetype conventions at your peril.
Speaking of those competitive titles in a P&L: for your story to be scored, it should match reasonably close to existing titles on the open market. It’s very, very difficult to estimate sales for a book that has no clear market analogue. As such, a book that defies genre-and-archetype standards (and usually, fusion fiction is a culprit here) can’t obtain a high-confidence P&L estimate.
Readers tend to stick to certain genres, and within those genres, a handful of standard plots, conflicts, and characters (archetypes) prove common. Trying to be creative — as with a gay vampire romance set in steampunk ancient Egypt — might lead to a genuinely charming story. But it’s not a story that can be comped effectively, and it’s not at all obvious where any given bookstore clerk would shelve it, leading to very real marketing challenges likely to depress sales. Those non-conforming stories present a real financial risk for traditional publishers.
This problem is why all those saccharine “write what you love” slogans prove vexing. Unless you love to write what the market already is primed to sell, you’ll find undisciplined solipsism to be a toxic muse.
You’ll undoubtedly find a fiction mag somewhere, or a niche small press, that welcomes non-standard stories. And these stories make for great self-publishing opportunities. But they’re much more fraught with risk for traditional/general publishers than stuff that’s easily categorized and comped.
Luck favors the connected.
The publishing industry is ripe with luck — the right agent or editor happens to find the right manuscript at the right time. But Lady Luck gets a major assist from your network.
A lot of debut novel deals don’t come from Joe Sixpack or Jane Soccerma laboring in Heartland obscurity. Rather, they come from folks who’ve earned MFAs or interned at upper-tier literary journals or who know someone who knows someone who facilitated a special introduction. Without a network to advance your name among editorial decisionmakers, you’ll face a much harder time landing a contract with a national or prestige market. (Harder isn’t the same as impossible, but having been a part of a lit-journal circle of editors, it’s difficult to dismiss the non-trivial value of social proofing.)
In other words: Crafting in obscurity in your basement writing jail is fine, but if you aren’t spending at least some of your writing time meeting authors and attending literary events and building an active social-media presence, you’re denying Lady Luck many of the essential ingredients she needs to boost your quest for publication.
Your cover letter isn’t mere formality.
Agents and editors break into two clusters. One of them wants to see the manuscript and a cover letter. The other wants a cover letter, sample, and synopsis but not the manuscript. Places that focus on the manuscript sometimes prove less of a barrier to emerging authors than the sample-and-synopsis people, because for this latter group a determination follows not from the manuscript itself, but from the query information supporting it.
There’s a running joke that authors spend 10,000 hours on their books and 10 seconds on their query package, with the letter serving as a distant afterthought. Having been on the receiving end of countless queries, I can tell you that the joke isn’t funny. I’ve seen countless cover letters that look like this:
In fact, most cover letters look something like this made-up image. No, I’m not being a jerk or exaggerating for effect. Probably two out of every three letters we received weren’t formatted in a standard letter template; one out of three consisted of just a few sentences that duplicated information we requested in the query form. Queries like this proved easy to reject without even bothering to opening any attachments.
Honor thy stylebook and keep it holy.
The authoritative reference book for literary writers is The Chicago Manual of Style. It defines everything you need to know about generating a manuscript, including instructions about formatting and layout. There’s literally nothing about manuscript development that a novel writer needs to know that isn’t covered in depth in Chicago.
And contradict Chicago at your peril.
Generate text, not a stylized newsletter. Skip the fancy formatting — drop caps, glyphs to separate sections, full-justified text, embedded line breaks, discretionary line breaks, etc. — and just write your story. Whatever you create won’t be published through Microsoft Word, and at some point, someone somewhere will have to remove all those superfluities that you inserted. A too-pretty manuscript is almost as much of a red flag to editors as a too-ugly one.
Some readers may tut-tut some of the foregoing advice by noting that so-and-so got a contract despite X or such-and-such an agent said something else at a conference somewhere … etc. In an industry where much is subjective and stakeholder misalignment is a real thing, you’ll always find both exceptions and people with contradictory advice. Welcome to publishing!
What I’ve shared is generally the case for most emerging writers. I’ve labored in the small-press and small-newspaper quadrant of the industry for more than two decades, but I’m obviously not omniscient. If you find yourself disagreeing with my points, that’s fine. But I haven’t yanked these points randomly from betwixt my buttocks. I can’t guarantee your success anymore than anyone else can, but I can tell you that I’ve seen the same problems afflict “average” writers and crush their dreams, over and over and over again. My advice, if followed, will mitigate some of those problems. But if you’d rather aim for a black-swan strategy … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.