I want to share what I’ve learned over the past few years about what it takes to get published. Authors are an elite few. Why is that? Having an idea for a book is pretty easy. Starting a book is even easy. But writing to the finish is a difficult task, and very few people actually reach that goal. Some lose interest. Others hit what’s commonly known as writer’s block. Still others don’t know how to get published once their manuscript is finished. This is perhaps the most common obstacle I have encountered. Most authors don’t have a plan for getting from manuscript to bookshelf.
I have authored two books—Eli the Stable Boy and A Clear View—and have had hundreds of conversations with authors at book fairs, at trade shows, on the phone, and at conferences. I’ve found that there are six things that successful authors do to get published. So here they are: six tips on how to get that manuscript out of your drawer, onto the bookshelf, and into the hands of readers.
The first and most important thing that you need to do is set a date when you want to hold a copy of your book in your hands. It could be an artificial deadline, something you make up, but it could also be an important date, such as a speaking engagement, a holiday, or a birthday party. The date you use becomes the motivation you use to get done with your book. For example, one author I worked with had the goal of getting his book done by his fiftieth birthday so he could give a copy to everyone who attended the party. Deciding on that date was the first and most important step in getting his manuscript off of his computer and into book form.
The second thing you need to do is create a timeline of the things that need to happen if you’re going to meet that deadline. In other words, you need to understand what it’s going to take to get from where you are to where you want to be and set appropriate milestones along the way. If you already understand publishing, you may be able to do this on your own, but most authors need to work with someone who knows the publishing process to make this happen. Your timeline should include important steps like completing your manuscript, editing your manuscript, submitting your manuscript, and allowing time for the design project. Of course, some of this will depend on the size and type of book you’re writing; a children’s book will take less time to edit than a lengthy historical fiction novel, and as a general rule, paperbacks don’t take as long to print as hardcovers.
My third tip is to determine the best time for you to write and block out that time on your calendar. What I’ve learned from my own experience conversations with authors is that most of us can write more in one good hour than in three hours that don’t go well. I recall one conversation I had with an author who has published more than twenty books, some traditionally and some independently. I was sitting with her and her husband at lunch and started to ask her when was the best time for her to write. Before I could finish the sentence, her husband said five thirty in the morning. He had seen that there was a best time for his wife to write, and she knew it. If you want to get work done, it’s very important to understand when your best writing time is and make sure that time stays available for writing.
The fourth thing is equally important, and that is to make yourself accountable to someone. It could be a publishing consultant with one of the ASI brands, a friend, a spouse, an editor, an agent, or a publisher. But most people need someone else to be accountable to in order to achieve any kind of goal. This is where a writer’s group or something like the Author Circle on the Author Learning Center website could be very helpful in helping you reach your goal.
Tip number five is to start planning your promotion before you finish your manuscript. Now, that may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but actually with the advent of social media and the other opportunities we have to communicate with people these days, you can have people anticipating the launch of your book long before you’re actually done with your manuscript. One of the key things you have to do to promote your book successfully is describe your audience. Who is it that your book is intended for, and who might actually enjoy reading it? This is a seemingly small thing, but it’s very important, because it lays the foundation for promoting your book. I asked an author one time who the audience was for his book, and he very seriously looked at me and said, “Every man, woman, and child living on this planet.” While I admired his ambition, it really was an unrealistic way to think about how he was going to connect with his audience. A specific, carefully defined audience usually leads to a good promotional plan. Once you know your audience, you can start to think about how best to reach them. Do they read blogs? Do they listen to the radio? How do they gain information about new books? Most people think, “Well, I need to get my book reviewed.” While book reviews are very important for certain audiences, they may not be as important for other audiences. In addition, a lot of bloggers review books, so there might be a way for you to reach out to bloggers who are interested in your book. Once you have defined your audience and thought about how to reach them, you need to decide what help you will need. Some authors already have experience with marketing and will know what to do. Others need help from professionals. You know best what your experience level is and what you’re comfortable and have time to do. Finally, you should plan an event to celebrate the publication of your book. This is perhaps one of the most exciting parts of promoting your book, and it’s actually quite fun to think about it when you’re doing the hard work of editing and revisions and proofreading. When you achieve the goal of publishing your book, you should celebrate that. As I mentioned earlier, I know one author who gave everyone who attended his fiftieth birthday party a copy of his book. I know of one woman who celebrated by hosting a book launch at her church, because the book was about an inner-city church that her church had helped found. The key is to pick the event, help plan it, and be ready for it when it happens. It might be a family reunion or a speaking engagement, but make sure that you launch your book and celebrate its completion.
The sixth tip is to be educated about your publishing options so you can decide which one is best for you. Today is the best time there’s ever been to be an author, and that is because there are currently three great options for publishing your work: traditional publishing, do-it-yourself (DIY) self-publishing, and supported self-publishing. Each of these options is different when it comes to who owns the content, how much time and money you have to invest, and how long it takes your book to get to the market.
Traditional publishing is the option that is probably most familiar to people. In most cases, you need an agent to approach traditional publishers. Historically, they have paid advances; they usually provide full editorial support; and they provide some marketing support depending on what level of investment they want to make in your book. However, traditional publishers now put out fewer books than they have in the past. Many of them now focus on celebrity authors, and perhaps most importantly, the publisher owns the content. Traditional publishing is under tremendous pressure to remake itself. Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins and the Wall Street Journal, made the following comment just a few months ago: “If new hardcover titles continue to be sold at $9.99 eBooks, the eventual outcome will be fewer literary choices for customers, because publishers won’t be able to take as many chances on new writers.” If you’re Stephen King, this is not something that you need to worry about. But if you’re someone who hasn’t been published before, it certainly is something that should make you consider the other options you have. Furthermore, traditionally published books take a long time to get to market—sometimes as much as a year or eighteen months. And in traditional publishing, you sign the rights over to the publisher. That means any movie rights and usually any international rights go to the publisher. Finally, a common misconception is that if your book is published by a traditional publisher, you won’t have to make an investment in marketing. That’s simply not true anymore. Even J. K. Rowling does a book tour. You’re going to have to invest time in promoting your book, and you’re probably going to have to invest money too.
One of those options is DIY self-publishing. There are two options in this category. One is what is often called vanity publishing. Really, it’s just getting a book printed. There is usually no distribution, and you usually are required to buy a number of books as part of the contract. I don’t recommend this option to anyone at this point. The second DIY option is the free online option. Amazon has a tool called Kindle Direct Publishing, and Lulu is another one. You simply upload a manuscript, and it gets printed in book form. Often you’re required to do the design yourself, and what comes out is a book that may or may not have an ISBN that puts it in distribution. In almost every case, it’s printed on demand. This is important to be aware of if you’re hoping to distribute your book widely. One key advantage to the DIY self-publishing is that the author owns the content.
The third option is supported self-publishing. It has been criticized in the past as another form of vanity publishing, but I don’t think that that’s a fair characterization. Supported self-publishing is akin to independent models of film and music production in which artists invest their own time and own money to get their work into the hands of potential audiences. It does require the author to make the investment, but then, so do the other two options. If your goal is to get into bookstores, it’s extremely important that your book be returnable. If a bookstore stocks a particular book but not all of the copies sell, the bookstore wants to be able to return that book to the publisher. Retailers have had this arrangement with traditional publishers since the Great Depression, and until recently, it was one of the main barriers to self-published authors selling their work in bookstores. Now days, though, most of the best supported self-publishing companies have a returnability option. And in most cases, supported self-publishing uses print-on-demand technology, so it’s environmentally friendly. As with DIY publishing, supported self-publishing allows authors to retain the rights to their books. Unlike DIY publishing, supported self-publishing gives authors a full range of editorial, illustration, design, and marketing services to choose from so that the book can be made as good as it can possibly be. In fact, most of these services are comparable to what you would find at a traditional publishing company.
Historically, media companies have controlled distribution, and this has been one of the barriers to authors getting their books into the hands of readers. Music was controlled, and film was controlled, and even publishing was controlled, but today indie artists have gained direct access to the market. Video is now available and widely distributed, iTunes has changed the way music is produced, and we believe Author Solutions is helping change the way books are getting into the marketplace as well.
So how do you use these tips to get published? Well, ask yourself the following questions: Have you set a date for when you want your book done? Do you have a timeline to get to your goal? Do you know when the best time is for you to write? Have you thought yet about your marketing plan even though you still may be working on your manuscript? Have you thought about your book launch celebration? And lastly, have you decided which publishing option is best for you? I can tell you from experience that if you follow this format and understand each of these key points, you will achieve your goal of getting published. I’ve seen it happen many times and have had the privilege of helping a number of authors walk through this process. I get notes all the time from authors who have talked about the fun they had at their book launch event. I hope that’s something that you will also have the opportunity to do, and I look forward to hearing about how you were able to go from manuscript to bookshelf.
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Thank you Keith for sharing your insights and experience in publishing. I will definitely follow your great tips and looking forward to holding the book by end of this year.
That was a great article and helpful information.
Thank you for this article. It was actually quite validating for me, and I was following the path you describe without really acknowledging it existed. My manuscript is done, and I am at the stage of exploring publishing options, leaning toward a supported self-publish with an off-shoot subidiary of a traditonal publisher. It is seeming to make sense to me. I am struggling a bit with the returnability issue, and it adds to my own cost. I am ready and need to make a commitment at this point. Oh, and plan a book launch event - looking forward to that!
Refuge for the Crocodile is like many i'm sure a work against all odds. For me it was a lifesaver somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Due to personal circumstances and lack of know how it took me thirteen years to write my story in six hundred and sixty pages. Thank God for better or worst i am not a quitter. I too wrote my manuscript early in the morning and now i need someone to help me get to the next level, any tips will be greatly appreciated Keith.
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