“I’ve decided I want to write for a living. Any tips?”
My friend Jannah recently contacted me regarding starting a writing career – and I’m glad she did! The advice I gave her is strictly related to writing books, though many of the general concepts could apply to magazine writing, etc.
Step One: WRITE! This sounds obvious, but hands down this is the most important piece of advice I can give. Not only is it a means to an end (how else will you come up with a book to publish?), it is also a means to practicing your craft. Rarely is the first sentence on a page the best one, and the more you write, the better you get at it.
There are lots of people (including myself, once upon a time) that talk about writing but never actually commit to doing it. And it is a commitment – while most authors have to do this in their spare time (we all like to be able to eat and pay rent!), it still requires you to force yourself to sit down and eke out a few pages at a time. Perhaps you need to wake up a little earlier and get some writing done before your family wakes up. Maybe you need to do it after they’ve gone to bed. You need to ascertain what time and place will work best for you and stick with it.
One great resource to have at your disposal is an accountability buddy or group. These are people that are in the same boat as you (either with a writing project or another big goal they are looking to achieve). You check in with each other once a week (or more) and keep each other on target. It’s a lot easier to get those 10 pages done when you’ve verbally committed to writing them.
Step Two: Do your research. Surely, in addition to being a writer, you are also a reader. You probably have a pretty good overview of what types of books normally exist within a particular genre. Now you need to focus in on your particular genre (business, self-help, mystery, romance, etc.) and decide where your book falls within it. An easy way to do this is to go to your local bookstore and see which shelf you think your book would end up sitting on. What other titles surround it? What do they offer?
It would be a good idea to read a handful of those books, if you haven’t already. What do they bring to the genre and world of publishing that makes them stand out? Why do you think they’ve earned their place in Barnes & Noble?
Finally, you need to ask yourself what your book is bringing to the table. If you are writing a novel about a woman who gets revenge on her cheating husband by framing him for her murder, you may want to reconsider – Gone Girl has already dominated the marketplace in that respect. If you are writing a weight loss guidebook, you need to make sure that the tips and advice you are offering are not already out there, or are at the very least packaged in a more interesting, accessible way.
There are lots of criteria that editors and agents use to ascertain whether your book is “sellable,” and the uniqueness of your project is one of them.
Step Three: Dive into platform building. I’ve talked about this a lot throughout my career. I’ve spoken at conferences across the country, and I have already written countless columns and blog entries on this. Why is this so important?
Establishing a platform proves to agents and editors that you are a) a rising star and b) that you have an established audience or group of friends that will theoretically buy your book – and that the group is consistently growing!
Think about it – if you were asked to invest in a product, you would want to know that there are people that actually need that product, right? You would want to know that there would be a major return on your investment. That is what editors are thinking – if their publishing company is going to put their resources behind launching your book, they want assurance that it won’t end up being a costly mistake (and yes, agents like to get their commission, too!).
There are a million ways you can build your platform, but your first step should be figuring out how your target audience likes receiving their information and updates. Would a newsletter work best? How about a blog? You should definitely get busy with your social media, but choose which platform you are best at handling and which you get the most interaction from your audience on.
Most important: You should be working on your platform constantly. This is not something that is done when your book is finished, or when your agreement is signed with a publisher. This is something you need to be working on throughout the entire process.
Step Four: Fall in love with editing. Writing’s the important part, right? Wrong. While it is obviously imperative that you have words on paper, the magic always happens during the editing stage. This is where your book goes from good to great. This is also one area that I see authors largely ignore, time and time again.
When you start pitching your project to agents and editors, your book needs to be as close to perfect as it is going to get. Yes, the editors at publishing houses do edit, but they have a million projects going on at once and don’t have the time to sit down and tweak your manuscript from square one. Agents also have a limited amount of time they can spend with each client – agents only get paid if authors do, and the advance should match up with the amount of effort they have spent getting a project ready to be pitched to editors.
Obviously, the first few rounds of edits should be done by you, the author. Once you have done that, it is important to join a writers group and/or have beta readers read through your manuscript. You need honest, constructive feedback from people that don’t necessarily love you or have a vested interest in the book’s success (i.e. a spouse, friend, or family member). They can very likely see things that you can’t, and this will be invaluable in getting your book ready to send out into the big world.
As a side note, I should mention that nonfiction authors do not need to have a full manuscript ready when it comes time to pitch agents and editors. They need a book proposal (essentially a business plan for your book). This is what will get sent out when you are pitching.
Step Five: Learn the process. Okay, your book (or book proposal) is written, it’s been edited, and you’ve been working on your platform – what’s next? Now it is time for pitching your project to literary agents.
While you can always take the self-publishing route, I always suggest writers try traditional publishing first; there is really nothing to lose. And agents are your introduction to the publishing houses, as well as your advocates and coaches.
First, you need to ascertain who you are going to reach out to. Not all agents represent all genres, so you need to make sure you are only contacting folks who are interested in acquiring books like yours. You can do your research by looking through literary agent guides (available in Barnes & Noble) or through sites like publishersmarketplace.com.
Next, you want to visit the agency websites, for two reasons. One, you want to make sure you understand their submission guidelines – some agencies prefer you send your query letter and first few chapters, some want to see your whole manuscript, some require you to fill out an online form first, the list goes on and on. If you do not follow their submission guidelines, you will likely be ignored – it’s nothing personal, it just comes down to time management. Secondly, you want to make sure the agency has had some success in pitching projects like yours. Look at their sold lists and ascertain if this particular agency would work for you.
Once you have sent your materials out, you may start hearing back. While there are likely to be some rejections (or no responses at all), don’t take it personally. Sometimes a project just isn’t a good fit. You should always let yourself be open to learning, however – if you receive nothing but rejection letters, there is likely something wrong with your project, whether it is your query letter (a brief letter introducing yourself, your book, and platform to an agent), book idea, etc. If you do receive some positive feedback, get excited! The agents will likely want more information for you, but if they think they can sell your project, they will jump on it.
Step Six: Get published! Once you have signed a representation agreement with your agent, they will start putting together a list of editors that they will be pitching your project to. Just like you did your research in finding agents, they will do the same with editors. More than likely, they already know who they want to send your book to, based on relationships they have made over time. When they start sending your manuscript or proposal out for consideration, it will likely be a little bit of a waiting game before you start hearing back from the publishing houses.
If a publisher is interested in your book, they will make an offer. Your agent will review this offer with you and will negotiate the best possible deal that they can for you. (Hopefully, there will be multiple publishers who are interested – this will drive up your book advance!) Once everything has been negotiated, you will sign your contract with the publishing company.
Going forward, most of the dealings will now be between you and your editor. Your agent will still be there in the background as a liaison and advocate, but you will mostly be working solely with your editor. There will be changes that need to be made to your book (and lots more writing, too). It will likely take a while for your book to be published – sometimes 18 months or so – but that will give you plenty of time to keep getting the word out there about it. And then will come time to start working on your next book…
I can’t lie and say making a living as a writer is easy. I can’t promise you millions of dollars and a beach house even if you do get published. But if you are serious about becoming an author, then I am confident that you will be able to navigate your way to publishing success. Good luck – the world awaits you and your book!
Do you have any tips or advice that you think I left out? Please feel free to share below!