Writing fiction

The parts of being an author that aren’t writing

Do you want to be someone who’s published, or do you want to be an author? Self-publishing makes it easy for nearly anyone to publish a book. Hundreds of people publish books every single day. (That’s probably a lowball figure—the publishing industry really is that active.)

But if you want to be a novelist with an active fan base and a growing catalog of titles that sell at least enough to keep paying your costs forward, then you’re talking about become a professional. You’re talking about creating a whole new career. It doesn’t matter whether you aspire to write a book every few years or you’re driven to sell enough titles to quit your day job. If you mean to write over the long haul, you’re committing to learning the business and practical side of publishing too.

Writing is only the first step

Your job as a writer doesn’t end when you hand off your book to an editor, agent, or cover designer. Getting an agent and publisher who’ll do all the business-y stuff for you is a pipe dream reserved for a very few superstar bestsellers. For everyone else—including authors with agent representation and traditional publishing contracts—figuring out how get ahead and stay ahead is the name of the game.

Writing is only the very first step of being a published author. Expect to spend significant time connecting with potential readers. Even traditionally published authors must spend significant time promoting their books. While you’re juggling that, you’ll also have to learn what sells and why so you can keep turning out strong sellers. Agents will move on to the next hot thing if you can’t keep up.

So can you? Can you keep your head above water in an ocean of other books? Like the proverbial omelet chef, you’re going to have to learn how to crack some eggs.

The uninformed hobbyist

If all you want is to publish a single story, you don’t necessarily need to know a whole lot to accomplish that. In a 2017 interview with Backmatter, publishing consultant, speaker, and editor Jane Friedman describes it like this: “So the average person, they may have only written one book. They may actually not be a very avid reader. And they may not really understand a lot about what’s being currently published. They may have memories of what they’ve read and enjoyed as a younger person, but they may have very little awareness of the literary landscape. And so they’re writing into a vacuum, and they haven’t done anything that would help them understand where they’re at on the spectrum. They haven’t done anything to advance their professional knowledge of the field.”

Sure, you could write your book from that position as an uninformed hobbyist. Many do. Will it sell many copies? It could happen. But you’d be better off sinking your editing and production money into a lottery ticket instead. In a six-month period, you’ll be competing with more than 65,000 self-published titles alone.

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a skill. Have you spent 10,000 hours writing fiction? Have you spent 10,000 hours reading current releases in your genre? Have you spent 10,000 hours studying how contemporary authors are getting their books noticed and read?

Of course, thousands of hours spinning your wheels at the bottom of the barrel won’t do any good. Writing one book, then publishing it with amateur editing and cover art and minimal marketing support won’t propel you very far along the experience continuum. Grinding out titles at this level does nothing for your professional and creative development as an author. (It might, however, earn you some reward miles toward becoming a certified hack.)

High reader expectations

Books are a fairly transparent product. The quality of the final product is directly related to the skill, effort, and production values that go into it. Readers won’t buy just any old thing thrown up on Amazon. They want something worth their time. They want something worth their cash.

The level of venom devoted readers can bring to their reviews is legendary. Your average local semi-pro musician doesn’t face anywhere near the same level of persnickety standards or audience criticism. Where does all this hate for semi-pro authors come from?

The answer goes back to the huge numbers of books published every month. Readers must find a way to identify quality titles. Without actually buying and reading the story, the major signposts they’re left with are professional-quality editing and covers.

Yet all too many authors believe it’s acceptable to publish an unpolished, amateur effort “to see what happens.” What will happen is virtually guaranteed: nothing. Nobody’s going to buy your book based on an unfocused, unedited blurb and a cover you had photoshopped by a friend. Even worse, a slapdash attempt risks permanently damaging your reputation before you’ve even decided the game is worth your real effort.

3 ways to start learning the ropes

The things you do now will prepare you for the tasks you’ll have to assume as a professional author.

  1. Begin learning about the publishing industry and what you’ll need to navigate as an author, including your first publishing decisions, queries and submissions, self-publishing, cover design, blurbs and retail page copy, and marketing and promotion.
  2. Learn to read like a novelist. Know the marketplace. Know your competition.
  3. Nurture a growth mindset to help you develop your craft and grow as a professional.

If your heart’s in the writing business for the long game, make sure your game lasts longer than a flimsy book that gets trampled on the first play. Then you’ll be more than some writer who got a book published. You’ll be an author.

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

Understanding how stories work changes everything. I’ll show you how to back up your creative instincts so your ideas hit home. It’s time to accelerate your journey from aspiring writer to emerging author. 

Ready to get serious about your book? Apply to work with me.

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