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Six Nuggets of Advice for Novelists New to Publishing

I originally published this article in early 2016 on the website of Caffeinated Press, the now-closed niche press that I co-founded and which operated 2014-2019. Because the content remains useful, I’ve reposted it here.

Once a week or so, we’d get phone calls or emails from people that go something like this:

Hi! I saw your website. I have a great idea for a book that I’m almost done with. I’d love to meet with someone to talk about my idea and get information about how it can be published and get your feedback about it. Please call me at 867-5309 so we can set something up. Thanks!

Many first-time writers honor some well-intended but misleading advice about how to be an author. The advice usually falls along the vein of: “Anyone can be a writer! All you need to do is just have discipline — write every day, and pretty soon you’ll have your debut novel. After that, reach out to agents and publishers to begin the publishing process. If you work hard and keep at it, success will find you sooner or later!”

The problem, of course, is that this advice simply isn’t true. Worse, it implies a relationship between authors and publishers that’s not consistent with real-world situations. (For example, almost no legitimate publisher returns cold calls from unpublished writers seeking basic industry advice.)

It’s absolutely possible to find success as an emerging author, but our guidance offers a more nuanced take than the typical, superficial “author blog” content. Let us, therefore, share some real-world advice about getting your feet wet:

  1. Your first five novels will likely remain in the back of your filing cabinet. Writing book-length material isn’t easy. As with any challenging activity, it requires considerable practice before you master it. Think of it this way: If you take up pottery or ceramics as a hobby, what are the odds that your first time with the kiln will result in a product that rivals the finest Ming-era porcelain? Pretty slim, right? More likely, your first few vases will look wobbly and crooked. But the more vases you make, the better they’ll look because you’re honing your craft. Same with writing. Is it really plausible to assume that, never having written before, you can nevertheless release publication-quality material your first time out of the gate? Many commercially successful authors are happy to admit that they landed their first contract on the fifth, sixth, seventh novel they wrote. Almost never with the first, second or third. (I’ve written six. They will never leave my file drawer, at least not in the state they’re in.) So if you’ve written your first novel, great! Put it in the cabinet. Now begin your second. Your emphasis at this point in your career should be on growing as a writer rather than seeking publication. Publication can wait. Plus, after you’ve finished several additional manuscripts, you’ll likely be embarrassed by your first book. (We’ve all been there!) At that point, your first novel becomes a candidate for a rewrite. And after that rewrite, it’ll be a much more attractive prospect for agents and publishers.
  2. Discipline without study merely reinforces bad habits. It’s said that you can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader. We think you can’t be a competent writer unless you’re a reader of books about the craft of writing. I’m reminded of my days, years ago, of learning karate. One of the instructors noted that I kept twisting my rear foot during one of our kata. I’d been practicing the drill for weeks, but I’d been practicing it with a mistake. He reminded me that the next kata in the sequence built off the one I was learning, so if I learned this one incorrectly, I’d struggle with the next one. So I had to unlearn the muscle memory I’d been developing and re-train myself with more precise foot placement. Writing is similar: If your prose contains certain errors of syntax or developmental problems, yet you blindly just “keep writing” without improving your skills through study as well as repetition, all you’ll do is drill yourself into habits that will never gain favor with editors and agents and prove harder to fix later. Study first! Study regularly! Only after you’ve sharpened your pencil are you ready to write with it.
  3. Beware the publisher that treats you like a customer. There are two types of publishers in the world: Traditional publishers, which assume all the financial risk for a book and therefore carefully select projects based on submitted queries, and subsidy publishers, which charge the author for the cost of developing the book and therefore apply little or no quality screening on the project. Subsidy publishers are usually called “vanity publishers” because you’re paying to be published. A traditional press’s goal is to select books likely to perform well in the target market. They often receive significantly more queries than they elect to publish (an acceptance rate of less than 1 percent to 3 percent isn’t uncommon). A subsidy press, by contrast, doesn’t really care about the market potential of the book because the author is paying all the costs. There’s no risk (i.e, the author subsidizes the publisher’s risk, hence the term) so there’s less of a need for quality control. If you pay to publish — and we strongly suggest you avoid this practice in most circumstances — then you are free to treat the publisher like you’re a customer. But for a traditional press, authors aren’t customers. They’re suppliers. Which is a very different form of relationship in the literary supply chain. Many traditional presses will pass on authors who treat the publisher as a service provider.
  4. You really do need an author platform. If you work with a traditional press, you’ll be expected to support a book after it’s released to market. The best way to demonstrate your ability to provide this support is through a platform. Do you have an author identity? An author website? A large and growing email list? A large social-media following? Platform is a genre-dependent beast and strategies vary for print vs. ebooks; the term refers to an author’s scope of influence within the book-buying public. You’ll usually find yourself at a disadvantage if you don’t have an established online author identity because you’re demonstrating that you bring no meaningful built-in readership to the table. Authors who cannot personally contribute 500, 1000 or 2000 sales (or more!) in the first six months after a book launches, courtesy of their existing fanbase, present a significant financial risk to the publisher. Obviously, this concern is less pressing for self- or subsidy-published titles, given that the only person who bears the financial risk if the book fails is you.
  5. There’s no easy path through the slush pile. Most publishers and editors maintain websites with documents (variously called FAQs or guidelines) that specify what they want to receive and how they want to receive it. No two places are the same, so authors must read those documents for every place they pitch. Almost all publishers and agents screen material to assess conformance with their guidelines. Think of it this way: If you can only publish five books out of every 100 or so that get pitched to you, can you afford the time to read the other 95? Of course not. So slush-pile vetting — the term for reviewing unsolicited, inbound queries — becomes an exercise in finding reasons to reject submissions. The first and easiest reason to reject is non-conformance with every provision of the editorial guidelines. Your best bet is to review the guidelines in detail, even if it takes a while, then decide whether to submit to that market. If you do submit, follow the protocol. Calling or writing to ask if the market accepts something is a rookie mistake unless the guidelines/FAQ clearly welcome this practice.
  6. If the material isn’t good, it won’t find a home. No matter how much you write, if you don’t avail yourself of a peer-critique group, you’re unlikely to get the feedback you need to get the manuscript in a spot where a publisher might take a chance with it. A critique group finds questions and opportunities, improving your story and ironing out linguistic bugs. The best writers use critique groups for a reason: They make you better as a writer, and they make your stories shine.

Put differently, you’re almost surely not ready for traditional book-length publishing unless you’ve been writing for a while, have built a deep relationship with a competent peer-critique group, established your platform as an author and mastered the submission process.