One of the most frequently asked questions I get is what advice I have for aspiring writers. Every author’s writing and publishing journey is unique, so I can’t speak to what you specifically should do, only what’s worked and hasn’t for me. This is by no means comprehensive (I could write volumes), and I do not claim to be an expert on anything. That said, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the course of this crazy publishing journey. This is mega long and all over the place, but I may try to organize it better in separate posts ultimately. Remember, there are no straight lines to success, so take what works and leave the rest. Above all, always trust your intuition!
(If you have more specific questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to update this post with more FAQs as I go.)
IN A NUTSHELL
“What’s your advice for an aspiring author?” is such a broad question, so these are my very broad top five tips.
- Finish your book! Anyone can start a book. The hard part is taking the story across the finish line. I feel like no climb is more grueling than those last few chapters, and no outcome is more satisfying that knowing that you’ve finished! The beautiful thing is that once you’ve finished a book, deep down you know that you can finish another. You’re a writer. It’s official!
- Hire an editor. Never put your work out into the world until a seasoned editor can provide critical feedback on it. I don’t care what degrees you hold or how great of a writer you think you are. Having a great editor not only makes your book the best it can be, but the lessons you learn from that process will make you a better writer. Always strive to improve your craft. (More on this below…)
- Never take no for an answer. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is give up when we’re told something can’t be done. When we pour our heart and soul into a book, it’s easy to feel deflated when we’re met with criticism and a seemingly endless cycle of rejection. Persevere, innovate, and things will find a way of falling into place.
- Innovate. Learn the rules and then break them is still solid advice. The world of publishing is changing daily. The increasing success of self-published authors is proof that anything is possible. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope and try strategies that no one has tried before.
- Writing is always the answer. Setbacks happen. Lulls occur. Deadlines loom. Remember why you started writing—hopefully because you love to and doing so satisfies your soul. Sometimes when I’m the most frustrated, I remember that writing solves everything. It meets my deadline, it takes me away from the stress of daily life, and it gives me a sense of satisfaction that will never be achieved by checking my social media accounts.
TRADITIONAL VERSUS SELF-PUBLISHING
These days, there are many options for writers wanting to publish, which is a wonderful thing. When I started writing my first book Hardwired, I knew almost immediately that I wanted to self-publish. I didn’t have the patience to navigate the usual channels of trying to get an agent and then hopefully landing a book deal with a major publisher. I was confident that I could publish a quality story with the resources at my disposal, and many people do. While I did eventually traditionally publish, it was only after I’d self-published five titles, had a proven sales record, and an established brand.
Of course there are pros and cons to both. There is no right or wrong way of doing things. Starting out, I knew that self-publishing would be an entrepreneurial effort. Every indie author you meet runs their own business, for all intents and purposes. Coming from a business background, I was up for the challenge and would go on to wear many hats self-pubbing. I owned almost every piece of the publishing process. On top of actually writing the books, I was in charge of cover design, ebook formatting, print formatting, website design and development, graphic design for promotions, managing finances and accounts, and establishing business relationships with vendors. Self-pubbing is without a doubt a lot more work, but it can also be incredibly rewarding to know that you’re making your own successes.
For me, taking a traditional publishing deal was an enormous and incredibly difficult decision. Even after I’d grown my MW team to take a lot of the publishing minutia off my plate, I was still used to being involved in nearly every aspect of the process. A major pro of going traditional was being able to step back and trust someone else to take care of many of those details. The con, emotionally, was coming to terms with not having the kind of control I was used to.
All of that said, this is a really exciting time to be publishing, because the industry is changing on a daily basis and the limitations that were once placed on non-traditional authors are definitely changing.
You may wish to pursue traditional over self-publishing, or you might self-pub but want to keep your options open and be represented by an agent also. However you go about finding your agent (alternately, they may find you), your relationship with your agent will be one of the most critical of your publishing career. Your agent will be an extension of you in the publishing world, acting on your behalf, representing you, selling you, and acting as a much-needed liaison between you and whichever publisher you end up working with. Here are some pro-tips for going into that relationship.
- Make sure that your agent reads your works and can speak passionately about them. How can they sell what they don’t know?
- Does your agent represent other authors in your genre? It’s always a good sign if they have a track record of selling similar works. That said, don’t get stars in your eyes if they rep a big name in the industry and assume that you’re next in line for super stardom. Your work has to stand on its own, and success only comes with hard work and tenacity. There is no easy button, I promise.
- While you want to go into any professional relationship hoping for the best, sometimes things don’t always work out–for one reason or another. Once upon a time, the author/agent relationship would be sealed with a handshake and good intentions. Now, you’ll be expected to sign an agency agreement. These can vary greatly from agency to agency. Be wary of committing to any agreement that makes it nearly impossible to switch agents if it’s not a good fit. You don’t want to be tethered indefinitely to someone who you don’t work well with.
As noted above, having an editor is one of the first pieces of advice I give to any new writer. I was lucky enough to have an English degree under my belt when I put pen to paper to start the Hacker Series, but that wasn’t enough. I knew I could write well and tell an entertaining story, but I knew next to nothing about the craft of fiction writing in my genre. If I was going to charge a fair price for my book, I was determined to publish a piece of writing that met industry standards, and having it professionally edited was key. I would have never NEVER published a book without consulting with a seasoned editor first. In my early searches for an editor, I was incredibly lucky to have found Helen Hardt, who not only edited but wrote erotic romance. Find someone who is comfortable and familiar with your genre! Helen completely schooled me with her first pass on Hardwired. It took a solid week for me to work through the daunting amount of the red markup. But, not only did I survive, I improved! Six books later, my writer toolbelt is stacked with lessons learned on best practices, craft, and style. Note: Helen hasn’t edited this blog post so I’m sure it’s far from perfect. I have a penchant for dangling modifiers. :/
I totally lucked out with finding my editor, but on your search for yours, it doesn’t hurt to ask for a sample edit of a few pages or a chapter, to make sure you’re comfortable with the kind of feedback they’ll be giving you. See who else they’ve edited and if they come highly recommended. Above all, pay your editor. Having your friend with an English degree or a job in the communications industry read your book doesn’t count, I’m sorry. You get what you pay for, and an editor who takes their job seriously will charge for their time and expertise. Unfortunately this isn’t usually a cheap service. I didn’t have the cash to pay an editor, but being the fiscally irresponsible dreamer that I was, I put Helen’s services on a credit card and prayed my book sales would cover the costs. Maybe that wasn’t smart, but I understood that this was a critical step in investing in my future as a writer.
What if you want to traditionally publish? Do you still need an editor? Maybe not. If you have a good agent, they may work with you on tuning up your manuscript to be more attractive to editors. If you end up getting a book deal, yes, you’ll work with their editors. If you don’t get a deal right away though, you’re not growing and learning by carrying on without an editor. I tend to think of it like college for writers. My editor is like a professor. She’s a hard grader, but I continue to learn from her and by going through that experience, I was positioned all the better to be noticed by a major publisher when the time came to take that leap.
SHOUT IT OFF THE ROOFTOPS
Write it and they will buy it! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were true? You’d think after you poured your heart and soul onto the paper that people would have the decency to buy your book. I mean, it’s the least they can do!
Seriously though, no one is going to find your book in a sea of self-pubbed books without some promotion. This is a business, remember? And just because you set up shop, doesn’t mean your phone will immediately start ringing. You’ve invested in editing (please tell me you have), and now it’s time to get innovative with marketing.
When I was getting ready to publish my first book, I friended as many romance authors and bloggers on Facebook as I could. This filled my feed with tons of information about what other people were doing to market their books. At the time, that was blog tours. These are still an important part of many indie and traditional authors’ marketing plans. Getting your book read and reviewed by bloggers is a great way to get the word out, especially when you are trying to build your initial fan base. This was one service that I always contracted out. If you don’t have a publisher, a good blog tour company will have a sizable database of blogs with whom they can coordinate blog tours, release blitz announcements, guest posts, interviews, and sale promotions. As with considering any new vendor, do your homework first and ask for recommendations so that you know you’re working with a reputable company.
In lieu of a blog tour company, you can politely ask blogs to post about your release or sale dates, but don’t ever straight-out ask other authors to promote your book. It’s rude and presumptuous. You can certainly offer to send people copies of your book to read if they have time (most prolific authors have very little spare time for leisure reading). It’s great to be hungry, but you’ve got to be professional if you want to make valuable relationships in this industry.
Periodic and strategic promotions can be great too. Give a lot of thought to pricing your first book though. If you price all your books at 99 cents or run steep discounts all the time, you’re going to have a hard time breaking out of that price point. If you’re comfortable with that price point, super. Just be aware of the bar that you’re setting with your readers and how that aligns with where you want to ultimately be. If you think traditional publishing might be in your future, having a readership that is used to paying pennies for your books will work against you. If you’re worried about charging too much or too little, think of it like this. You are shouldering the costs of professional editing, branding, formatting, and promoting your books–expenses that any publisher would also have. The price of your book should be commensurate with the investment that you’ve made to ensure its quality and reach new readers.
Since you’re investing in your writing career, you may consider paying for ad placement to expand your reach. Whether you’re using Google, social media platforms, or advertising on well-trafficked blogs, there are many options. Whatever you do, make sure to measure your results to see what’s working and what isn’t so that you’re investing your hard-earned money wisely.
Okay, my head hurts, but I hope some of that was helpful.
Stay classy, and good luck!