We’ve all heard the fable of the dry branch breaking while the supple limb flexes and comes back stronger than ever. Nowhere is this more apt than in working with publishers and their creative staff.
Recently I heard someone talking to his friends about his newly-finished book manuscript. Someone asked, “So when’s it coming out?” and the writer replied, “As soon as I find a publisher that won’t make me change anything!” I was there as a friend-of-a-friend so I didn’t say a word, but what I thought was, So… never, then?
Because that’s what publishers do! I don’t mean they alter the meaning of your project or make changes without your approval or anything even remotely nefarious. What they do do is ensure the books they publish are the best versions of those books possible, in the expert opinion of their creative staff (editors, editorial directors, art directors, copy editors, designers, editorial assistants, etc.) who—collectively speaking—have vast amounts of experience in publishing.
They earn this right via the simple fact that they’re paying for the production of your book, from your advance to the editor’s salary to the physical printing of the books (to say nothing of the publicity, sales, marketing, and distribution of said books to various venues all over the world… all of which contribute to your bottom line).
And beyond that, they’re generally pretty damn good at what they do. (Maybe better than you… definitely better than I.) And they generally know what works in any given market… again, maybe even better than we do.
Because of the above, they will actually offer editorial suggestions regarding manuscripts they plan on publishing. And if it becomes clear that you—as the author of said manuscript—aren’t amenable to considering feedback regarding your precious words, you suddenly become much less interesting to the editor in question. On the flip side, if they get the vibe that you’re a talented writer who also plays well with others, that’s a plus. Virtually every story of publishing success I know of involves taking (or at least seriously considering) editorial input at some point.
My very first professionally published piece began as a letter to the editor of a magazine. But the more I worked on it, the more it started to look like an article (at least in my naïve opinion at the time). So I went ahead and wrote the entire piece (around 3000 words, IIRC), complete with charts and graphs and photographs. (Which I developed in our little homemade darkroom, indicating what century this was.) Then I bundled up the whole thing and sent it off to the editor without a word of warning. (Query letter…? What’s that?)
His response upon receipt of my bundle of literary brilliance? “Sorry, but we’ve already done something like this.” Shit. “But…” he suggested, “how about writing an article about this, instead?” And the this he referred to was something I didn’t have a lot of interest in, to be honest. But hey, this door into publishing—even if it was the wrong door, leading somewhere I wasn’t really interested in going—was open. If only a crack. And it was the first door I’d seen up until then that wasn’t bolted tight. So I took his suggestion and wrote the piece (which he bought and published) and that was the beginning of my nonfiction career, leading to two hundred articles in various national publications as well as a couple of nonfiction books.
My first fiction sale went something like this: I submitted a science fiction story to the editor of my favorite SF magazine. (A breathtakingly brilliant story that was absolute perfection in every way, I might add.) His response was basically, “It’s an okay story, but we don’t need to see the protagonist break in and steal his boss’s prize fish. It’s obvious. Just have him leave, and then return with the fish.” Man, I hated that suggestion. Because I loved the fish stealing scene—so clever, so funny, so… superfluous. Yeah, once I removed it (something I never would have done on my own) I saw he was right. So I sent him the revised story, and he bought it and published it. Which was awesome. But even better, I learned an invaluable lesson—just because a scene is “good” (or well-written or funny or clever or whatever adjective strokes your writerly ego) doesn’t mean it helps the story. And the secondary lesson here was that this insight didn’t come from a writer, but an editor. Because that’s what editors do--they make stories better. Not by re-writing them, but by making suggestions to the writer as to how they might re-write them. (Understanding this difference is crucial, lest you fall prey to the goofy-yet-popular “Publishers will totally change your shit and publish it without your approval” myth.)
My wife’s first book deal came about when an editor read her manuscript and returned it with a note on the order of, “I like the voice but it’s way too long for the genre. If you cut it in half, I’ll look at it again.” A lot of writers would have thought, NFW am I ripping this thing apart for a major structural rewrite just because one person might ‘look at it again’…! That’s a ton of work with no commitment on the editor’s part, and my wife obviously thought the book was good as-is or she wouldn’t have shopped it. (No agent at this point.) Yet the door—while not exactly open—was at least unlocked. For now. (That’s another thing about rejections-with-suggestions: they come with an expiration date, which is exactly as long as the editor’s memory of her good feelings about your manuscript. Different for each editor, but generally weeks or months and not years.) So (with my loving support and encouragement… most of which consisted of me saying, Are you freaking crazy? Of course you should do this!) my wife buckled down and did the hard work of making the book significantly shorter while keeping the stuff that made it unique and wonderful in the first place. The editor eventually bought it—which started my wife’s career in children’s literature—and they currently have thirty-plus books together… and counting.
My first book deal (nonfiction) was also based on suggestions, but in this case it was the writer giving suggestions on the editing rather than the other way around. I’d written a fairly lengthy series of how-to articles for a magazine, and when the series was concluded my editor floated the idea of bundling them up into a book, basically re-printing the articles as they’d originally appeared in the pages of the magazine. I’d had similar thoughts, but I didn’t want it to be just a ‘collection of articles,’ so I suggested I write additional material to bridge each section and gen up additional photos and drawings (as well as change the 3-column magazine format of the text to a more “bookish” 2-column layout) which the editor was flexible enough to agree to. The end result was a coherent book the editor and I were both proud of—it became one of the better selling books the publisher had at that time—and I can’t help but think this might not have been the case had we just put out a quickie compilation.
With my first published book-length fiction (a YA novel), there was some editorial back-and-forth between me and the editor before I even got a contract. I recently heard someone opine that you should never do any revisions without a contract (and if your last name is Rowling or King, I might agree) but my thinking is if an established editor at a reputable house is willing to work with me on my manuscript, then I’m goofy not to. Her suggestions were very good—typically more about what to trim than what to write—and I took at least 80% of them. And I ended up with a contract and an advance and an agent and a book I’m proud of. None of which would have happened had I put my foot down in a show of authorial inflexibility.
And finally, with the novel I recently sold (actually, which my amazing agent recently sold, to a Big Five imprint), the editor had some questions before she made an offer. She let it be known that she was interested in the manuscript—loved the main character and his voice—but she needed answers first regarding how I might address certain things. I felt she was basically saying, "This is roughly what I think it needs. If you aren't up for doing the work, let me know before we tie the knot." And I totally understood that viewpoint, and I really appreciated her forthrightness. (See this post on how “a willingness to revise” is one of the main things an editor looks for in an author.) Then I proceeded to reply to her with a couple thousand words on how I might address her comments. And, well, here we are—the book pubs this fall and I couldn’t be more excited.
And to be honest, I think my general willingness to roll up my sleeves and work with her was as germane to selling the manuscript as any specific revision ideas I came up with.
And… now that that manuscript is pretty well buttoned up, we’ve had a conversation about next steps. I said I had ideas in sub-genres A, B, and C, and she said she was more interested in books that fell under B than A or C. Fair enough. So I sent some pages of an idea that came under B, and she let me know what she liked and what she thought needed some tweaks. Again, I’m free to do what I want, but if I want to continue to work with her, the smart move would be to work in an area in which she’s interested and listen to her feedback. So that’s what I’m doing.
Begin to see a pattern here?
So… if you need a publisher that will put out exactly what you write, word-for-word, without suggesting any editorial changes, that’s easy. You just have the wrong P-word. You’re not looking for a publisher, you’re looking for a printer. There are a ton of them who’ll be happy to take your money and print up your draft exactly as-written. And there are lots of sites where you can “just press publish” and your words will be magically available to whoever wants to read them, exactly as you drafted them. And all of that’s perfectly fine.
But if you want to successfully work with a publisher—one who will pay you, as well as pay for the production, printing, publicity, sales, and marketing of your book—then a little creative give-and-take can go a long way. And will very likely make your book even stronger than it would have been on its own. After all, you and the publisher want the same things—for your book to be the best version of your story, and for it to find success, both artistically and commercially.
Don’t be so brittle you break. Sometimes there’s more strength in being agile.
So, what does it take to get published…?
Timely subject matter?
All of the above, in a unicorn-level confluence???
If you listen to some conventional wisdom, the odds are so far against you that you might as well give up.
But the ones saying that are making a critical mistake in their reasoning… they’re acting like all aspiring authors trying to get published are equal.
They’re not. Not even close.
Look at it like applying for a desirable, high-paying, computer-centric job in the tech sector. The sort of job that might get a hundred-plus applicants for a single position. If your background is as a short order cook and you have zero experience or aptitude regarding computers, then yes, the odds are pretty terrible. But if you have the education/experience/aptitude the position requires, the odds—while not perfect—are much more realistic. Especially if you’re willing to do the research to find a company that might be a good fit… and you’re not stuck on any single company, but are open to a number of them.
When you apply for one of the above positions, there’s typically a multi-step process. (Apply online via form; submit CV; follow-up email; follow-up phone call; HR interview (phone or zoom); technical interview (phone or zoom); lengthy in-person interview/lunch/meet-n-greet to assess if you’re a “good fit” for the team; job offer; salary negotiation; acceptance; hired!) Most of those early steps aren’t actually there to assess your exact aptitude for the specific job at hand… they’re really designed to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. And only then does the employer get down to the serious business of assessing the remaining candidates.
The same with publishing. If you have the writer’s equivalent of the “necessary education/experience/aptitude” (in other words, you can write - and communicate - with a modicum of passion, intellect, and skill) then the odds, while not perfect, are much more realistic.
So don’t worry about the hundreds of emails hitting your would-be agent’s inbox this week. They don’t matter—many of them are from short order cooks looking for a coding job. Just do what you can do to put yourself in the running as one of the “serious candidates,” and you’ll eventually connect with the right agent and editor.
Just like applying for a job. Take it a step at a time, making sure you meet the requirements for each step along the way.
We recently reported where a new agent posted on social that if you can get your stuff together to simply compose a normal, common sense, concise query, you’re automatically ahead of 90% of all querying writers.
Well, you’re a writer, so you can do that.
Then you have to query agents who actually represent works in the same field as yours.
Well, this is a fairly simple research project… you’re certainly smart enough to figure that one out.
Then you have to have a well-enough-written manuscript that makes an emotional connection with the reader. (Character/Voice and Craft, right?) Revision/beta/revision/beta/etc. are good steps here. (In other words, no matter how excited you get, don’t submit before it’s ready.)
When an agent asks for a partial or full and starts reading, they’re looking for reasons to put it down and get on to the next one. (Like everyone, they’re busy and overworked.) So don’t give them one! Especially early on. Really spend time crafting and re-crafting your first pages. (No info-dumps here. Start in scene, and stay in scene. Keep it moving, feeding any back-story in bite-sized pieces that don’t throw them out of the story.)
If/when they finish your ms, you want them to think about it after they’ve closed the file. So, again, take the time to make sure your ending resonates and somehow ties back—in an emotional way—to the thematic underpinnings of the story.
If they like all the above and think there’s something here, they’ll probably call you. (If so, treat it just like if you got a call-back from a place where you applied for work. No need to freak or fangirl… although we all get excited when this happens.) They like your work or they wouldn’t have called. They’re just looking to see if (a) the work is still available, and (b) you’re a normal-ish human being with normal-ish business behaviors. (i.e. a basic sanity check before going into business with you—this is the “meet-and-greet” part of it.) And this is definitely a two-way deal, so don’t be afraid to ask questions of your own. Everyone’s different, but for me, two important areas would be (1) communication style and frequency (I hate to be left in the dark for long periods) and (2) their industry contacts (gone are the days where a successful agent has to be in Midtown—though many still are and it sure doesn’t hurt—but it’s pretty important that they have working relationships with the sort of editors you’d like to be published by.)
And then, they may want to ask for revisions and/or do some other sort of editorial work on the ms before they start submitting. This is like an employer offering you a job, and then saying, “Oh, by the way, all new employees go through our orientation training before starting work.” And of course, the only smart move here is to say yes. (I mean, changes are never non-retractable, and on the off chance you hate their input you can always revert to the previous version.)
So now you’ve been “hired” for the initial position (agented author) and your agent is trying her very best to get you promoted to the next level (published author).
This process is pretty similar to the original “application process,” except now you have professional help from an expert. So listen to her and take her advice… she’s highly unlikely to steer you wrong—the overriding goal in her work life is to help her authors get the best deals possible, and she only gets paid when you get paid.
And when an editor is interested, all of the above will once again apply but by now you’re an old hand at the hiring process. (In other words: apply; communicate with those who seem interested; put forward the best version of your story and yourself. Be open to feedback, willing to revise, and easy to work with.)
If you do all the above—and you have a strong manuscript and a modest amount of business sense—you’re not one in a thousand looking for the gold ring. You’re one of a small group of qualified candidates, and with effort and persistence you’ll find someone who’s a good fit for you and your work.
Happy job hunting!
Writing (taken as a lifestyle, whether vocation or avocation) consists of two discrete areas: the writing itself… and everything else (EE).
The writing itself is fairly discernable: Plan/plot/ponder; initial drafting; subsequent drafts; revising; rewriting; polishing. Self-directed at first, then possibly with editorial suggestions.
Let’s further divide “everything else” into two areas: EE1 and EE2.
EE1 is basically book-related stuff (querying; submitting; discussing things with your agent; back-and-forthing with an editor; etc.) that—while not specifically writing—is absolutely germane to the completion and publication of your work. (If you’re an indie author, this could also include formatting for ebook, book design, cover art, writing flap copy, etc.)
EE2 is a little fuzzier, as it contains a lot of stuff that isn’t directly book-related, yet which we could still conceivably think of as “writing adjacent.” This might include: promoting; networking; marketing; touring; blogging/vlogging/podcasting; running giveaways; developing and maintaining a website, and seventeen thousand various other items somewhere within the broad category of “social media.”
Notice how—in a weirdly reversed hierarchy—the further we get from the actual writing, the bigger the categories get? The more options for non-writing we have? And the more time some of these non-writing tasks can eat up?
The ratio (of time spent on each) is important, if for no other reason than we have a finite number of hours we can dedicate to the whole activity falling under the broad umbrella known as “writing.”
I’m certainly not here to suggest how much time you should spend on each. (Duh. At this exact moment I’m writing a blog post instead of working on my WIP, right?) It’s different for different writers, regardless. I’m just suggesting that maybe we should take stock of it occasionally, lest it get away from us and our focus unintentionally drifts. (Otherwise known as ‘mission creep.’)
I’ll further posit that it seems much more common for writers to go from a higher W:EE (Writing to Everything Else) ratio to a lower one than the other way around.
Very few of us do too much writing and not enough EE. (Although I’m sure somewhere there’s an author with amazing books in a trunk—which we’ll never see—because they just write them, then put them away and start another one.)
But a lot of us seem to actually do more EE than writing. Again, not for me (or anyone else) to say. But something I can say is that in the overall scheme of things, the writing itself is the most important part, and will have a bigger impact on whatever success we attain.
Especially early on in our careers.
I mean, if Ms. Wildly-Successful, Million-Selling Author wants to spend much of her time administering her charitable foundation or whatever, her career is probably going to be okay because she’s a known successful commodity with nothing to prove. But when we’re lower on the ladder, we do have something to prove. And by far the best (and pretty much only) way to prove that is to place a really strong manuscript in the hands of an agent, editor, or reader. And of course, the only way to do that is to write that manuscript first. (And then, yes, we have to do a bit of EE regarding getting said manuscript into the hands of that agent, editor, or reader.)
So maybe I’m talking to myself here as much as anyone else. So maybe I’ll end this here. And maybe I’ll get back to work.
My top three rules for writing…
1. There are no rules.
2. There are no rules.
3. There are no rules.
Seriously. No rules. None. But… that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever the hell we want and it’ll all work out perfectly. No guarantees, right?
However, there are a lot of useful concepts and guidelines which, if followed, might make our writing more appealing to more people and/or make it more likely that we’ll achieve our goals, whether artistic or business.
Then there are so-called “rules” about how to write (and how to be a writer) that are just someone’s description of how they work. Or worse, maybe just someone’s opinion about how they think writers should work. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that people are ready and willing to jump in with their opinion about things with which they have no actual experience. Yeah, I know. Stunning. Yet true.)
The trick is to know the difference.
One clue is if it seems like (and is presented as) a common-sense recommendation that passes the sanity check once you examine it--and the proponent can explain why they believe it’s useful—then it may be a Category 1 piece of advice.
But if it’s dogmatic, and/or presented as a “you must” or “you must never” command… or if it’s presented as the word of god with no rational, artistic explanation, then it may be a Category 2 dictum. (A big red flag here is when a person who hasn’t done x tries to pontificate about how to do x.)
TL;DR: The more it’s presented as a “rule,” the less likely it’s actually useful advice.
Some examples of each, starting with the more egregious Cat 2 “rules”…
You must write every day. I’m calling bullshit on this. I’m sure they exist, but I honestly don’t know a single author who actually writes every day. Partly because there is a LOT of work around being an author that doesn’t involve writing, and partly because it’s not always in the cards to write, even if the time is available. Yes, some writers try to live by this—and good for them if it works for them—but in no way does that mean that you should feel bad if it doesn’t work for you.
Write what you know. Yup. Just like J.R.R. Tolkien knew hobbits and orcs and elves. Or J.K. Rowling knew magic. Or George R.R. Martin knew dragons. But… they knew people. And their stories are ultimately about people. So this might be a Cat 1.5 rule. The derivation of which might be a little more nuanced, but is something along the lines of: (a) have some sort of knowledge about how people may actually respond, even if in a wildly fictional setting, and (b) do your research—have no errors of fact which could be remedied by a little hard work. But go ahead and write about whatever you want… as long as you do the work to make it feel real. (And I think the secondary lesson here is: if you want to write successful fantasy, use your initials in your byline…)
Genre X must have wordcount Y. You see this a lot, too. There’s obviously some truth to the principle that certain categories of fiction generally fall within certain broad guidelines. But why do people insist on pontificating about it like it’s the rule of law or something? If someone says, “MG must be between 30,000 and 37,500 words!” or whatever, they’re full of poop. (I’ve seen someone say this while on a panel. My response was, “It’s a very wide range. This should be the least of your concerns when writing.”) Just a quick look at the Hannah Holt Middle Grade Survey shows what we already knew: Big Five middle grade novels ranged from 20,000 to 105,000 and anywhere roughly in the 30,000 to 80,000 range was “in the ballpark.” So if you have concerns, instead of stressing over some arbitrary number you found on the internet, maybe go to the library and look at a dozen or so books similar to yours and check their basic wordcount. You’ll see exactly what the above survey shows… the quality of your manuscript is far more important than exact word count as long as you’re somewhere within the very broad “acceptable” area.
You must write XXXX number of words a day. Similar to most of these, this is just some writer talking to himself. No need for you to listen. We’ve discussed this before (here) but in short, trying to hit a daily output is fine if you want to do it, but by no means required to be a successful writer. (Not that I’m holding myself up as ‘successful,’ but I’ve never counted—or even thought about—my daily word output once in my life. And more to the point, I know authors with dozens of books to their name (award-winning, best-selling books) who are the same.) So go ahead if it works for you, but it’s absolutely not required.
Now some examples of Cat 1 guidance. Worth consideration, but apply or reject depending upon your workflow.
Use standard formatting. Again, if you’re a NYT Bestselling author, you might get away with submitting your work in crayon. But why would you want to purposely send your work out in non-standard formatting, telling the publishing world that either you didn’t even bother to look up standard formatting, or you don’t care enough to follow directions? Either way, it looks like you’re not really serious about it. Again, you can do what you want, but why start with two strikes against you?
Follow standard querying guidelines. I just read a tweet by a literary agency assistant who basically said, “Just knowing how to write a normal query puts you in the top 10% of submitting authors.” Same as with formatting, simply learning how to break the code costs nothing and will give you a leg up on the people too lazy to do it, so it seems goofy not to. This is not the place to try to be clever or witty or wildly unique. You’re basically trying to convey the following: “I have a manuscript about X, Y, and Z. I think you might be interested in it – and a good fit for it - for reasons A, B, and C. And oh by the way, I’m a reasonable, generally-sane person who understands professional boundaries, and one you wouldn’t mind working with.” That’s it.
The most common mistake is submitting too early. This is sort of a craft thing also, but we’ve separated out the reason why below. Just keep in mind the old cliché, there’s no second chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s really ready… and then make sure some more.
Try to write regularly (for whatever value of “regular” works for you). We can’t always do this, but one benefit (besides productivity) is that it keeps the story in your mind, with your subconscious grinding away on it behind the scenes. Another benefit is that it trains your brain that thinking about your story is a default state of mind rather than an exception… that writing isn’t some rare, special activity, but something it should be doing on a regular basis. Which is the same reason we’ll sometimes say: If you can, try to touch base with your story every day. Which—if you can’t write—might mean line edit your last chapter, or read you last few chapters, or simply think about your story as you do the laundry or wash the dishes. If this works for you.
90% of getting published is having a strong manuscript, and maybe half of that is revision. There’s pressure in the indie world to produce work quickly. But OTOH, it’s also generally true that the faster a manuscript is created, the more it could benefit from revising. The bottom line is, virtually every manuscript can benefit from rewriting/revising/polishing… before an agent or editor or paying reader sees it. (‘No second chance,’ etc…) Skipping this is the craft version of submitting too early.
Try not to head-hop without a good reason. The reason this oddly-specific advice makes the list is because (a) we see it fairly often, and (b) it almost always comes off looking as if the writer hasn’t yet mastered point-of-view. (IOW, virtually the only time we see this is when it’s done by someone who either isn’t aware they’re doing it, or isn’t aware of the reasons we typically don’t do it. So it looks like a rookie mistake either way.) Again, not a rule. If Stephen King decides to head-hop, he’s got a very good reason. And so should you. Otherwise, it has the potential to do way more harm than good to your story.
Again, as with all ideas about art, take what works for you and discard the rest without a backward glance.
Because the real message here is: Don’t get caught up in the minutia people (some knowledgeable, some not so much) spout online. There really are no rules. And if there somehow are rules, no one really knows them anyway… because every author I know followed a different path toward whatever their version of ‘success’ looked like.
You do you.
At the time of this writing, in-store visits are still problematic in many locations. I hear some authors say they can’t wait until we can do them again (amen!) while some are doing virtual visits. (Good on them. Indies—and authors—can use all the help they can get these days.)
But I also hear some questioning the fundamental usefulness of book touring, per se.
Fair enough. Because I’ll be the first to admit that if you look at it strictly from a “return on investment” viewpoint, the answer’s not always crystal clear. So let’s step back a bit…
A few years ago my wife and I had books come out at the same time and decided it might be fun to do a joint book tour. Our plans started small but, as per usual, once we began brainstorming all common sense left the room and we ended up booking and doing what was probably the largest national book tour of that year.
Sixteen weeks on the road, covering almost 100 bookstores plus dozens of school visits, along with conferences, festivals, libraries, book fairs, etc. Done in two eight-week legs—one in the spring and one in the fall, with a break over summer because our kids were home—we covered much of the U.S., burning up 15,000 miles of highway in our trusty minivan.
It was a blast getting to visit all those bookstores… virtually all of which were indies. When we were booking the tour, we had a few criteria: If it was a mom & pop store*, if they had a store dog or cat, and if they had coffee, they were definitely in… assuming they were anywhere close to our planned route.
[*We also visited a lot of iconic indies that are well beyond “mom & pop”—Book People, Tattered Cover, Powell’s, Hicklebees, Changing Hands, Wild Rumpus, Anderson’s, The Bookworm, etc. But you get the vibe...]
We can talk about the logistics of touring later (as usual, I have thoughts) but today I want to address the question behind the question. The initial question is usually something like “How many books did you sell?” and/or “Did you make money?”
The answer to the first one is technically zero. We don’t sell books. (But we gave away hundreds, with our goofy-yet-fun “Booking” adventures, invented by my brilliant wife.) But the stores we visited definitely sold some books. I don’t know exactly how many, but certainly well into the thousands. (Which doesn’t mean we hit list. We presented at 100 stores, right?)
The answer to the second one is no. And yes, probably, eventually. And the real answer: Umm… that’s sort of missing the point.
The answer’s a little vague because it was kind of a hybrid tour, regarding support. When a publisher sends you on tour, they usually fly you to a big city where you present at a few stores and maybe a school, then to another city (where you do the same), and on to a few more cities. All very nice, and all on their dime. (This is 80/20 observational vs. experiential for me, but my wife has been fortunate enough to have been toured several times.) But we wanted something a little different. We wanted to visit the indies in flyover country, many of whom don’t get authors every day, if ever. And we wanted to visit a LOT of them. (Partly, my wife wanted to visit all those indies in the middle of the country as a “thank you” for hand-selling her books all these years. And we wanted to see America, beyond the left and right coasts.)
Booking the tour and being in contact with our respective publicists, it quickly became apparent that we were planning something far beyond their purview. Which was fine by us—we knew going in that this was above and beyond what we could expect any publisher to spring for. But it wasn’t entirely on us—the publisher generously supported a leg in the middle of it, where we flew from Seattle to Chicago, presented at a pair of conferences as well as some schools and stores, then back to Seattle where our book-wrapped van awaited. Also, some of the events have decent honorariums, and I recall after one particularly busy stretch of back-to-back-to-back presentations at bigger conferences and schools we were pretty worn out, but then I did the math and said, “Well, we just paid for our gas for the whole tour.” But on the other hand, over 100 nights in hotels can really add up, even if you’re not staying at the fanciest place in town.
So I really don’t know… maybe we made money, maybe not? Either way, it would be hard to make the case that we came home flush. (And the royalties from books sold at our in-store events wouldn’t show up for six months, regardless.) All of which leads to the question behind the question:
As we’ve seen, the reasons many people immediately think of (sell books, make money) may or may not apply. Yes, part of that equation depends on the level of support—if any—you get from your publisher. But there are longer term benefits that will apply regardless of where the financing comes from. Such as…
Building relationships with booksellers.
This is a biggie. In the Amazon age it’s easy to overlook the importance of word-of-mouth and—especially—hand selling, but this is still a very effective way for books to reach readers. And it carries the weight of authenticity: readers will take a trustworthy bookseller’s recommendation over an algorithm any day. But you have to do your part. If you just swoop in, basically say “Buy my book!” then sign and leave, you have become the sales algorithm. But if you do the work to bring some new potential customers to an indie store, offer the store and attendees something of value*, and interact with the customers and staff in a way that’s far removed from simply trying to sell your book, you may have the start of a real relationship. And—assuming they find you and your work to be genuine—the bookseller may be inclined to recommend your work long after you’ve gone.
Plus, writers don’t work in the typical office environment… most of it is just you, alone with your computer and the voices in your head. It’s nice to get out once in a while and commune with your ‘co-workers’… the booksellers and librarians and teachers who care about the written word as much as you do.
[*When it made logistical & scheduling sense, we would sometimes offer to do a pro bono author presentation at a nearby school of the store’s choosing. Sometimes the store would hold an associated book sale at the school and sometimes not, but regardless, we always made a point of telling the school (and the students) that their local indie bookstore could have picked any school to have us visit and they picked this one, so please return the favor and support them. And of course we’d also mention that we’d be at their local bookstore that evening, which often brought students and their families to the store. Helping connect stores with their local schools and community is a win-win situation for everyone.]
Interacting with your readers…
Let’s face it—meeting fans of your work is one of the most enjoyable parts of being on book tour… in times when inspiration is running low, nothing quite picks you back up like someone telling you what your work meant to them. And if you give your time and attention freely and honestly to your readers, they’ll remember that going forward, also.
…and reaching new ones.
Everything I just said about interacting with fans applies to new readers, too. Even those who’ve never read a word you’ve written will leave with an impression of you… as a person, if not (yet) as a reader. And don’t think for a minute that the one doesn’t affect the other*.
[*My overall take on in-store presentations: If you swoosh in there and regurgitate a list of your various books with descriptions of each, etc., you come off like a walking version of your publisher’s catalog. Zzzz… Or worse, if you do the “Well, in my book…” thing (popular with non-fiction authors but not unheard of with novelists) you come across like an “As seen on TV” salesperson. But if you’re an honest, engaging, sincere, funny, and/or informative person (pick any of the above, as long as it includes honest), and you offer something of value to the attendees (vs. ego-boosting yourself) then—without even really talking about your books—their overall impression will likely be something along the lines of, “Wow. They were helpful and took the time to answer my question and they seemed nice and authentic… and funny, too. I bet I’d enjoy their books!”]
Presenting in front of potential advocates for your work.
This is one of those intangible things that can pay off in the long term, but it’s hard to know exactly when or how. However, presenting to educators or librarians or teachers or even teachers-of-teachers (NCTE, anyone?) can only be a good thing. There may be no immediate payoff from any specific conference (any potential honorarium or travel allowance aside) and there may never be. But that’s okay. Besides them learning about you and your work, there’s a lot you can learn from them… about what works and what doesn’t in an educational setting, about what interests their students, etc. It’s good karma. And you just never know*.
[*Example: I’ve presented in front of teachers at reading conferences in the Midwest, including during the tour described above. The following year, a teacher in L.A. contacted me and said she’d heard about my book from an educator at an English teachers’ workshop who used my book as an example during a presentation. She thought it was a good fit for something she was teaching, so she required all the school’s incoming freshmen to read it over the summer. It’s not possible to trace events back to where it started, but there’s a fairly decent possibility that someone heard me talking about the book somewhere and told someone else who told someone else (teachers talk!) and pretty soon… Bob’s your uncle.]
Showing your publisher that you’re willing to do your part.
Like the other points, this is sort of unquantifiable but very real, nevertheless. It’s no secret that at least part of the publicity for any upcoming publication depends on the author, and the more you can do—and the more you can let them know about what you’re doing—the more they appreciate it, and may be inclined to think favorably of you*. So another benefit of doing whatever you can—on whatever level is workable for you, whether that’s garnering local press or doing local signings or library presentations or schools or whatever—is that you’re demonstrating your willingness to pitch in and be a team player. Which can only be a good thing.
[*I remember dropping our editor off at the airport to fly back to NYC after she flew in to see a pair of special events we were doing in the Northwest in the middle of that crazy tour, and I thanked her for coming. She seemed genuinely surprised and said, “Oh no… thank you, for all you guys are doing!” That brought home to me the fact that yeah, along with promoting ourselves and our works—and books & reading in general—we were also promoting our publisher’s products, and this fact was not lost on them.]
So… does it make sense to tour?
Strictly in dollars and cents over the short term, it might not. (Like, if you were only going to put out one book and your only goal was to maximize immediate profits, touring beyond your local area would be counterproductive.)
But over the long haul, with multiple books over multiple years (which I’m guessing most of us want), then yes, you can make a strong case that building up bookseller loyalty… that meeting your readers in person… that helping create new readers… that presenting in front of people who value books the way we do… that helping your publisher get the word out… is absolutely beneficial over the long haul.
Because as I’ve said before, for virtually all of us this isn’t a get-rich-quick thing. It a long game. So we need to take the long view. And getting out there and doing all the things we’ve discussed is a great step toward building a solid foundation for a creative career.
I was listening to a writing podcast recently and someone was complaining that what he was doing “wasn’t working” (meaning he wasn’t getting published). Which is something we can all relate to at one point or another. Except this guy’s frustration was largely centered around the fact that he was doing everything “right” from a marketing standpoint—following all the latest trends/advice/buzz—and it still wasn’t working. More out of sympathy than anything else, I found myself saying to my phone, “Dude… if you really want to get published, you should try caring more about writing than publishing.”
This is not me being snarky or flip, or saying I have all the answers. (Are you kidding?) It’s simply me giving my best quick-hit advice based on observing the creation and acquisition of multiple books from multiple authors over multiple years…
Yes, there are a lot of formulaic manuals about how to write a novel. And maybe even more about how to get published. And even more “get rich quick” infomercials online about how to “be a successful author.” And blogs and vlogs and podcasts and videos and social posts galore about all of the above, each touting the latest FOMO-driven tips about what agents and editors want. We’ve discussed this before, here and here.*
[*TL;DR: (a) Most plot construction formulas come from screenplay writing. While there are some useful concepts there, a novel is a somewhat different beast. (b) Writing to trends is problematic for many reasons. If you start writing to a trend today and the writing, revising, polishing, querying, submission, acquisition, editing, and publishing processes all go without a hitch (ha!), your book will grace the shelves of Barnes and Noble in three years at best. By which time the universe may have moved on. (c) If the authors of those “Seven Easy Steps to Writing a Bestseller” e-books actually had the formula to writing a bestseller, they would probably be spending their time actually, um… writing bestsellers. (d) Almost all of the above “advice” assumes editors are just looking for a re-hash of whatever’s currently selling, like car salesmen or something, which is simply a false narrative. The reality with most editors at most imprints is something completely different. More on this later.]
And yet… even though the interwebs are abuzz with this stuff, no one I know who’s been published has followed anything remotely like the sort of trendy advice described above. And shoring this up is another observation, made by virtually every editor I’ve heard speak on the subject: The work which resonates best with readers is almost always the work which means the most to the writer.
Because, at best, what we do as writers is try and translate what’s in our heads into the heads of our readers. And if all that’s in your head is, “I hope I’ve found something trendy enough that someone’ll publish it,” that’s exactly what readers will get from it—that the motivation wasn’t passion but profit. And they’ll buy into your story about as much as they’ll buy the spiel from the used car salesman. (And of course, the first reader of any consequence will be an agent or editor, who are experts at detecting passion… or the lack thereof.)
So, submitted for your consideration: If you want to get published, try banishing all thoughts of publication from your mind while you’re conceiving, plotting, drafting, revising, and polishing your work. Do your best to write that which matters to you, which you have passion for, and which might even scare you a little. And don’t stop until it’s the best it can be. Because doing that gives you the greatest chance of reaching someone else… including an agent or editor.
Because… what if… just maybe… most agents and editors aren’t looking for someone who can replicate the flavor-of-the-month? What if they’re actually looking for writers who create well-crafted, interesting, emotionally engaging stories? Because maybe they know that’s largely what readers want to read… stories that get to some real truths about the human condition, about how we live, or maybe about how we should live?
We could do worse than attempt to create such a story.
And only then—when your heart is fully on the page and the story is crafted to the very best of your abilities—should you turn your complete attention to the process of finding an agent or editor who may respond to the story with as much emotion as you put into it.
But until then, the less you think about publishing, the more likely you are to craft a story someone will want to publish.
Ironic, isn’t it?
I’m pissed as I write this. Not Brit-pissed (it’s morning and I’m at a coffee shop so… not likely) but American-pissed. Royally.
A writer-friend of ours posted an adorable family photo on social. Cute and casual. In it, one of the family members was reading a well-known and beloved children’s book. But after a handful of “This is adorable!” comments, someone (another writer-dude) put up a comment that basically said, “My new book such-and-such is better than this book for reasons XY&Z.”
And I’m all like, WTF???
After biting back the urge to call him out right then and there (which would only further ruin the post of the adorable family pic), I tried to figure out why in God’s name someone might do this. If it was an ill-advised attempt at humor, I could semi-sorta get it, I guess. Maybe. (As John Scalzi points out, the failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.”) But there was zero humor in it—this was just a blatant attempt by the dude to insert a plug for his book into a decidedly non-business post. (And slamming someone else’s much-loved book in the process, no less.)
This is by no means the only case. You’d be hard pressed on any given day to read a popular article in School Library Journal or Publishers Weekly and not see someone blurt out in the comments, apropos nothing at all, “My book ‘Three Ways to Trim Your Nose Hair’ is available on Kindle now!!!”
Look, I get it. Publishing is a tough business, maybe more so these days than ever. It’s no longer enough to just write something other people want to read. An author is also expected to do a lot of the publicity for their own work. (Which we’ll address in a future post.) And of course the rise of social media has magnified this paradigm by a thousand. And for those writers who are their own publisher, they’re solely responsible for virtually all of the publicity, sales, and marketing of their work. All while seeing what their peers are doing to try and sell their books. And of course, most of the writing “news” that other authors post is heavily weighted toward the relatively-rare good news about book deals and best-seller status and awards, etc., further fueling the FOMO flames licking at indie authors’ backsides.
So yeah, I get the pressure to keep up with whoever you imagine is your competition. (Tip: It’s actually not anyone else at all. It’s you.)
But don’t do it! Three reasons…
1. It’s just wrong. That’s reason enough right there. Friends don’t spam friends. Or see them as “sales opportunities.” Or piggyback onto their popular posts which have nothing to do with their book whatsoever. Or hijack a congratulatory comment thread about someone getting a nice promotion within the publishing industry. Or in any way insert themselves where they’re not invited.
2. It doesn’t work. Consider the goal of all this desperate spamming: in theory, it’s to generate sales. So, in an insanely reductive fashion, some writers think the answer is simply to shout “Buy my book!” as loudly and as often as possible. But, as should be intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer (my dad’s favorite phrase when I didn’t get something), this is so wrong-headed as to be laughable. Because—at some level--all business is personal. We tend to give our business to those we like and avoid giving it to those we actively dislike. Duh.
So don’t make us actively dislike you. Double duh.
It’s sort of like literary cat-calling. With the same results. (Like, when in the history of humankind has it ever worked for some knuckle-dragging loser to whistle at a woman in the street and yell lewd suggestions at her? Spoiler alert: Never.) Same with hijacking a thread to blurb your book. It’s an absolute failure path. It’s even worse—career-wise—than doing nothing, because besides (1) alienating your few remaining friends and (2) actively discouraging people from buying your book, there’s the added problem of...
3. It kills your rep within the industry. What do you think an agent or editor or publisher will think of you when they see you trying to hawk your book in the middle of someone else’s affair like a drunk uncle trying to convert everyone to his politics at Thanksgiving? Yup, pretty much exactly that—they’ll tag you as a flaming ass-wipe, to be avoided at all costs.
Similar to cat-calling, it shouts from the literary rooftops: I’m desperate, I’m self-centered, I’m driven by peer pressure, and I have no clue how real human interaction works!
So, what should we do to engage potential readers in the online sphere?
For starters, try to act like you’d want a guest to act if they were invited into your home: Be kind, be thoughtful, and above all resist the urge to see every conversation as an opportunity to sell yourself or your product.
Try to be the best version of your writing self. Consider the following…
Recommend other authors’ books. Everyone (every reader, at least) loves honest book recommendations. But we automatically discount anyone who recommends their own book, for reasons that should be obvious by now.
Signal boost worthy people and causes (without getting all didactic, hateful, or preachy, because who likes that?). Like the above, we want to learn about good people and good causes, as long as there’s no conflict of interest and we’re not being spoken down to or lectured.
Try to give helpful tips to fellow writers. Because it’s a nice thing to do. Because helping others succeed doesn’t hurt your own chances one bit. Because it increases ‘community’ and decreases ‘competition’ among writers. And because freely offering something of value (as opposed to “buy my book!”) is how you garner honest engagement.
Be an inspiration, not a frustration. Have you noticed how, with some people, you usually feel better after reading their posts? (Maybe grateful, maybe inspired, or maybe just lifted by a smile or a chuckle?) And with others, most of the time it leaves you either bummed or annoyed or demotivated?
So… which of the above feelings do you want others to associate with you?
Try to be that.
Last time we discussed some not-infrequent issues arising during free school visits.
I suppose one answer might be to just Grinch-out and stop doing them, but that’s no real solution because school visits – free or otherwise – are really beneficial and big fun, if done right.
They’re beneficial to the kiddos (inspires them to want to read and write), to the teachers/librarians (helps reinforce things they’re trying to convey like the importance of revision in the real world, etc.) and to the authors (connects them to their readership, motivates them to think about and codify their process, etc.).
And again, they’re just plain fun and rewarding to do. Writing is predominantly a solitary activity and it’s good to know there are actual readers somewhere on the other end of the equation, and meeting those readers and taking their questions is always nice.
And finally, there’s nothing like students seeing a living, breathing writer, in person, to drive home the point that yes, real people actually write books… and they can too if they put their mind to it.
So yeah, the benefits of school visits are legion. And it’s also rewarding to be able to occasionally help out a school or district that maybe doesn’t have the resources to swing a typical author visit. (At its best, the concept of giving should be a win for both the giver and the recipient. If it’s not, something’s askew on one end or the other.)
With all that in mind, we want to avoid the types of issues we talked about last time. In general, most of them can be prevented by good communication between the author and the school.
Good communication… before the event.
Here are some strategies that may be worth consideration. (And if you have others, feel free to put them in the comments.)
1. When donating your services, make it clear that your normal honorarium is $XXX but you’re waiving or reducing your fee to help the school out. (In other words, make them aware of your value, and that they’re getting something of real value—something schools usually pay for—even though you’re not charging them for it in this instance.)
2. Ask what the visit “might look like.” Get them to give you a detailed rundown of the expected preparations, as well as the activities on the day of. If nothing else, making them state it in writing or out loud will make them more likely to follow through on it. (And yes, it’s okay to ask if lunch will be served if they don’t bring it up!)
3. Ask what exposure the kids will have had to your work prior to the visit. I’m not saying they need to buy every student a copy of your book (as at least one well-known author requires for “free” visits) but they should have read at least some of your work in class—whether for assignment or SSR—and be somewhat familiar with you and your writing in general. This alone will make the presentation much more successful, as the students will have both interest and questions from the exposure.
4. Don’t be afraid to politely decline if it’s clear from their responses to the above that they don’t really value you and your presentations. This can be tough—most kidlit authors consider themselves allies of schools, teachers, and librarians. I know I do. So maybe use something like, “I can only do so many free visits per year, and I’ve learned that the students get the most out of them when the school’s willing to do some preparation beforehand.”
5. Be wary of places that contact you asking outright for free presentations. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems like most venues that contact authors asking for gratis presentations are shotgunning their requests, looking for whoever’s willing to bite. Sometimes it’s clear from their query they don’t know your work at all… you’re just another name on their list. This sort of spamming isn’t likely to result in a meaningful author day for either you or the students. (It’s a slightly different topic, but this can also apply to conferences, festivals, and workshops.)
6. Consider making them do some legwork, similar to applying for a grant. Maybe send them a form and have them fill out and return it, listing what they’ll be doing in advance of the day to ensure a meaningful presentation. (In a sense, it is a grant. You’re asking them to delineate the reasons their school should receive free educational services.) I heard an author on a podcast (it was “Kidlit Women,” IIRC) talk about something similar: She does two free visits per year. She has schools apply and she chooses what she thinks are the most deserving ones. And yes, she definitely has more meaningful visits after the schools go through the application process—they know the value of what they’re receiving and they really appreciate her choosing them.
7. Have the name and contact number of your host at the school (the person coordinating the visit) and a back-up if possible. All your communications should be through them, and they should be on hand during the visit. (Yes, sometimes situations change and life intervenes, and if you do this long enough then sooner or later you’ll end up dealing with a “substitute host.” But—assuming they’ve been briefed and the schedule of events decided upon beforehand—things should still go well.) This is par for the course with paid events, and there’s no reason to skip it just because you’re doing your presentation pro bono.
In the end, it’s not really about the dollars and cents. It’s about feeling like you've made a positive impact on the kiddos, and the best way to ensure that is to ensure they’re familiar with the work and—more important--engaged in the exchange that happens during an author visit. After all, you’re not there to speak at the students. You’re there to inform and inspire in an interactive manner, creating an experience they’ll take with them going forward.
And the way to ensure all this is to ensure the school values you.
And the way to ensure that is to value yourself and your work.
It’s funny, yet empirically true:
1. The more someone pays you, the better they treat you.
2. The less they pay for your work, the less they think it—and you—are worth.
3. No one will value you—or your work—more than you value yourself.
Not funny in a “haha” way. Funny in a “wow, that’s strange and illogical” way.
If someone does a professional job and charges a professional price, that’s to be expected, right? But if someone’s willing to do a professional job and charge a reduced price as a favor (or even do it for free), you’d think they would be treated even better. But so often it’s the other way around. Which is the ‘funny’ part. I’ve seen this dozens of times, with myself and with other writers I know.
Kidlit authors often do “school visits,” where a school will bring in an author to give a presentation to the students. Broadly, the authors talk about things like writing and reading and the value of persistence, etc. But there’s usually a lot more to the overall presentation than that, and a lot more behind-the-scenes prep work involved as well.
The schools pay the author to present to their student body. And if it’s an away gig, they cover travel and lodging, they have someone pick up the author at the airport, they have someone shuttle the author between schools then back to their hotel, etc. It’s a fairly standardized thing. The author is paid per day, with a “day” typically consisting of perhaps three presentations at one or more schools (sometimes schools share an author to spread out costs) and often also including signings and lunch with staff and/or students and occasionally an associated evening library program for adults.
The students get a lot out of it—both inspirationally and educationally—and the staff are usually super stoked to have an author come and talk with their students. To make the most of the author’s time on campus, they’ll often make sure the kids have read at least some of the author’s work and are familiar with them, etc. (This is really helpful, by the way, as it’s much easier to keep the attention of five hundred middle grade students if they know you and your work!)
And the authors get a lot out of it, too—they get to interact with their readership (perhaps the best part), they get to spread the word about not only their work but about the value of books and creative work in general, and they get to inform and inspire the students regarding the writing process. And they get an honorarium. (In a field without regular paychecks and no set salary, this is more important than one might think.)
This is all good. But once in a while you might run across a school without the budget to bring in an author… maybe it’s a smaller local school… maybe an under-served school in another district… maybe you’re acquainted with the staff. So for whatever reason you decide to waive or reduce your honorarium for them. And sometimes, everything goes wonderfully. Especially if the school knows and likes your work and the kids are familiar with your books.
(There was a high school in our state which had all their incoming freshmen read my book. They couldn’t afford an author visit but contacted me about maybe doing a Skype chat… less costly but also less impactful. They were some distance away but drivable round-trip in a day, so I said I’d do it in person for free since they were featuring my book in their curriculum. Turned out to be a wonderful experience. I did three presentations to reach all their freshmen and those kids were prepared. They’d done detailed language arts projects on the book and gave really well done presentations on them to me. The students and staff were super appreciative and attentive throughout, there was a nice lunch provided, and on my way out I was given a check for travel costs, which was totally unexpected and really nice.)
But this only happens if the host has done the appropriate prep work.
And this is where free visits can get tricky. Because if the school isn’t invested financially it can impact how they invest other resources… like time and attention. You arrive only to find out the person who coordinated your visit somehow isn’t available. You’re turned over to someone who doesn’t know who you are. No librarian or language arts teachers in sight, let alone the principal. No one introduces you to the crowd, so you do that awkward ‘Hi guys, I’m so-and-so and I’m here to talk to you about writing!’ self-intro. To a bunch of blank stares. Because the kids have no clue who you are, what you’ve written, or even why you’re there. Afterward the person who was sent to fire up the AV equipment for you sort of mumbles thanks, then you pack up all your stuff and load it back into your car, looking for a Taco Bell as you start the long drive home because there was no mention of food. And as you sit there eating your spicy tostada from the value menu, you wonder, Why the heck did I even do that?
Of course they don’t all go like that but in my experience this isn’t uncommon, and I’ve heard several authors relate similar tales, with “Free visits just aren’t worth it,” and “Half the time I end up regretting it,” being frequent comments.
Here are just a few classics…
And now for the punch line: When they’re paying you, those things virtually NEVER HAPPEN. The staff is engaged and super happy you’re there. The librarian and language arts teachers and principal or vice-principal are almost always in attendance… and frequently a bunch of other staff, too. The students are familiar with your work and engaged in the presentation, and they’ll have some great questions afterward. There’s almost always some sort of festive catered staff lunch, often attended by a select group of students who have a special interest in writing and/or have excelled in some relevant way. And they frequently send you off with a cool gift basket along with a check for the honorarium.
And yet if you give the exact same service for free, they act like they’re doing you a favor just letting you in the door.
So the lesson I’ve learned is, they don’t value you unless you value you.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do free author presentations. I did one last week as I write this, and I’ll absolutely do more. I’m just thinking that perhaps there are some strategies we can use so the visits are effective even though provided at no charge. We’ll discuss these next time.
Until then, please value yourself.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.