After all this time at the keyboard, I learned that I started out wrong–and I’ve been scrambling ever since. I was just playing around with my first manuscript, no particular goal in mind. I wasn’t looking to become an author, I was just entertaining a friend in Canada who had a life-threatening illness. I didn’t finish the novel until after she died, but I finished.
I had a complete mystery/suspense novel in my hands and absolutely no clue what to do with it.
Back then, I knew just enough about the business to know of a book that contains information on all the publishers in the good ol’ U.S.A. I got it, studied it, and sent my new creation to a publisher I found in it, along with a note that said something along the lines of “This is my newborn child. Isn’t it beautiful? Publish it for me, okay?”
My newborn didn’t even earn the courtesy of a rejection slip. I never heard back.
If you think you see in these few paragraphs what all I did wrong, I’d be willing to bet you’re missing the same things I was.
Here are a few of the things you should do before you write the first word of your novel–or at least as you are writing your novel:
Study genre requirements and choose one, then study it more–study the how-tos of it, study the market for it, study how to market it. Make sure you’re happy with your choice of genres, because to develop your brand, you’ll probably be writing it for a while. Mash-ups are popular these days, but it helps to know the intricacies of the genres involved in the mash. It’s also important to know what your primary genre is, because it’s awkward to explain to an agent or publisher that your new masterpiece is a mystery/romance/thriller/steampunk/adventure/YA/dystopian. Of course, you may not want an agent and publisher, so . . .
Decide your goals as a writer–which, perhaps, should be #1, but I like to jump to the good stuff first. I’d rather study writing than any other part of this business, but this is a business, and we have to consider all aspects of it.
One of the aspects is realizing how many options we have as authors these days. We can have an agent or not. We can be traditionally published or independently published. We can be traditionally published with a large house or a small one. Or we can be “hybrid” and do both: traditional and independent (but we must be careful not to violate our contract with the publishing house).
There are pros and cons with every single choice we have:
The biggest “con” with being published by a large, traditional house is that they’re extremely difficult to get into. You have to have an agent, and sometimes it’s no easier to get an agent than it is to get into a large house. You can meet agents and acquisition editors in conferences, but unless you’re determined enough in this business to spend the money to go to a conference, you’re not likely to be so fortunate as to get to avoid the hoop-jumping required to get published by a traditional house.
The biggest “pro” with a traditional house is the possibility of having your books shelved in physical stores. Yes, Virginia, there are still people who buy books in supermarkets, airports, and bookstores.
The biggest “con” of being self-published is that absolutely everything lands on your shoulders–so before you start writing, you’d better learn what “absolutely everything” consists of. My best advice is to join the ever-growing networks of independents and learn from them. Believe me: I’m playing catch-up, and I spend most of my time these days with my head in an information-overload fog.
The biggest “pro” is two-fold: you have total control, and virtually every penny your book earns lands in your pocket, undivided with agents and publishers.
Study the agents and publishers that accept your genre, if you decide you want to go with a publisher. Know what their requirements are and what they’re looking for. Keeping these in mind as you write will make fulfilling those requirements easier once you’re done.
Study everything about self-publishing if you intend to go hybrid or independent. You’ll be amazed what all is involved. Just how independent do you want to go? All the way? Then you need to learn how to edit your own work, design your own covers, format your novel, and upload it on the different sites–and you have to know which sites. Do you want help with the hard stuff? Find services that help and compare, or better yet, find the networks of people that are already established and befriend them. You’d be amazed how helpful they are.
Once you’ve done that, learn pricing and promotional/marketing strategies, figure out the algorithms, and prepare to do your bookkeeping. As I said, one of the pros of indy publishing is getting to control everything yourself, which means you can assess how well one of your marketing ideas is working by studying the charts you will have access to. Put some thought into this so you’ll be prepared once you’re ready to go public.
Start now developing a platform. A platform is any group of people who are likely to buy a book from you. Friends, family, church–any organization you belong to and are known in–make up a platform, and they’re great. But if you want to make sales all across the nation, and beyond, you’ll have to have a cyber presence. I’m not a big fan of joining every single social network out there. They’re all time-sucks. Find what you like, what you’re most comfortable with, and work it regularly. Make friends.
Saving this aspect for after you’ve finished your novel isn’t wise. You’ve gone from zero to “buy my book!” in no time flat with no one to ask to buy your book but a whole bunch o’ strangers. And believe me, those strangers are bombarded with no-names like us trying desperately to sell their books.
There are so may ins and outs to this business, I’ve just scratched the surface. I’m still learning. It makes me nuts discovering how much I don’t know because I didn’t realize when I was playing around with that first manuscript that I would one day be this passionate about writing. My goals have changed from then to now, and my ignorance of how the game is played makes reaching those goals more difficult. And the fact that the industry is in what feels like a perpetual state of flux doesn’t help.
Here I am, with four books out and more to come, and I’m still learning things I should have paid attention to before I wrote the first word. Learn from my mistakes, kids. Spare yourselves.