The road to publishing as an author.
Becoming a published author is very hard work.
Becoming a published author requires hours and hours of hard, solitary, often back-breaking work at a computer terminal (granted, a few followers of Tolstoy are still applying quill pens to paper). By its very nature, writing is solitary work; it is the antithesis of teamwork and collaboration. As author, you begin with a blank screen. You alone are responsible for developing your characters and your plot, laboring through the inevitable difficulties, and finding and developing your own literary style, or voice.
You may hire a developmental editor or book consultant to help you gain insight into the overall structure and shape of your narrative, but it still falls upon you to write, and to write well, supremely well. There will be many lonely hours spent second-guessing and doubting yourself, your skills and your resolve.
Truly, though, you should never doubt yourself. If you don’t believe in your skills as a writer, if you lack the resolve to be a writer, how on Earth is a publisher going to believe in you? How will your spouse and family be able to support you emotionally and financially? Remember, you signed up for this, for better or worse. Twenty years from now, do you want to tell your children that you once aspired to be an author, but that you didn’t believe in your abilities and you quit on yourself?
Also remember that nothing good in life ever comes without hard work. So work as hard as you can, never doubt yourself, and never sell yourself short. And don’t forget to look around you. Many awful books are published every year because some publisher thought they had the potential to sell thousands of copies. They didn’t, but still they got published. In the beginning at least, becoming a published author is very hard work, even for the most talented of writers. In spite of the large numbers of new books being published every year, the odds are definitely stacked against new and aspiring authors.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of new authors who aspire to write the next great American epic or bestseller will never be published. Certainly, having a literary agent can open doors for a new author. But statistics show that even authors who are represented by a literary agent have only a 15 percent chance of being published. For those aspiring authors who are not represented by a literary agent, the odds are even more formidable: Only 1 percent are published. The odds against success are daunting. Even fine authors face multiple rejections initially. Eoin Dempsey, author of the splendid World War II drama White Rose, Black Forest, reported that his first written work was rejected 150 times. When you read his work, it seems inconceivable: How could so many publishers have missed such a talented storyteller? The late author Sol Yurick, a friend and mentor of mine who wrote The Bag, had his first novel turned down 29 times. And yet one of his lesser works, The Warriors, was adapted for film 20 years later and became a large success on screen.
Personally, I must have topped all the world records: It took me 236 submissions over a period of five months to find a publisher for my first novel, The Animals. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I received anywhere near that number of rejections; in fact, the vast majority of publishers to whom I submitted never even responded. I had to wonder how many of them even took the time to browse my letter or synopsis. A few liked the premise of the work and the narrative, but decided that it wasn’t suitable for them.
Nevertheless, near the end of my fifth month of sending out submissions packages, I received my first offer from a small press in Montreal! I wasn’t thrilled with the terms of the contract. But within a week, I received a second offer from a small press in Virginia. The terms of the contract were so much better. I signed the deal immediately. Sure, there were times throughout this process when I felt weary and discouraged. But never once did I think of quitting. I knew that a good contract offer was out there somewhere. The only question was: How many rejections and non-responses would I have to wade through before I got to an acceptance? So keep the champagne on ice! The recent consolidation in the book publishing field has made matters much more difficult for first-time authors. Many viable traditional publishers have been swallowed up by the Big Five worldwide publishers. In the past, large publishers often assigned recent college graduates to skim through “slush piles” (note the derogatory term) of “unsolicited” work (again) from unpublished authors. Now, they have collectively decided not to even bother. None of them will read or accept unsolicited manuscripts.
Worse yet, they have made this blanket policy, covering the imprints of numerous publishers they have acquired over the years. So they have made the task of becoming a published author that much more difficult. This truly represents an abdication of their responsibility as gatekeepers of the literary world. It means that the next Tolstoy or Fitzgerald may never be discovered. But take heart! Neither Tolstoy nor Fitzgerald could rattle off and submit 25 or 30 letters and submissions in a day. So seize the advantage provided by modern technology. One would think that the growth of self-publishing would have leveled the playing field for new and aspiring authors. It has, to a certain extent. In the 21st Century, many self-publishers, large and small, have gotten into the game in response to an overwhelming demand. Thanks to what used to be called “vanity press,” you no longer have to rip your hair out or plaster an entire wall with rejection letters as a reminder of your hurt and disappointment. Many debut authors have satisfied their desire to be published with a limited run of print copies for themselves and their family and friends. But it pays to be mindful of the words of Robert Frost: “All that glitters is not gold.”
Self-publishers exist to make money for themselves, not the author. They will offer you a la carte menus of services: Cover designs and hard-cover printing, embossed print, special binding, etc. In short, they will manufacture a pretty book for you – at your expense. But if you want marketing, advertising, and promotion across multiple social media platforms, you had better be prepared to open your wallet (or purse). It will cost you thousands more. It takes muscle, hustle and money to distribute, promote, advertise and sell books. This is the unspoken downside of self-publishing: Without a considerable investment in advertising, marketing, and promotion on social media – functions provided by traditional publishers – you will wind up with little more than a pretty memento for you coffee table (and practically no sales).So…why bother, you may ask. Well, first of all, you’ll bother for the obvious reason: You feel as if you have a compelling story to tell, a book inside of you waiting to be born. Of course, you will want to write it because you are a writer; writing is what you do. But, like many other types of artists, you are a performer: You want to share your work with others, and to receive recognition (and hopefully praise) and a financial reward for all your sweat and toil. If you’ve toughed it out and found yourself an independent publisher or small press, you are already well on your way toward achieving those goals.
Of course, you’ll need to invest in yourself to make the book launch successful. I would strongly advise against attempting to tackle all of this yourself (unless you have expert friends to rely upon). It makes much more sense to create a budget, decide which outlets will provide the broadest exposure for your book, and then compare costs among agencies providing public relations, marketing, and promotion on social media platforms. No one can be an expert in every area. Defer to experts you can trust. Ask them to put together a proposal, including outreach to book reviews and library journals; and messaging on social media to create a “buzz” around your book, especially among book clubs and literary groups. You wrote the book. Now you build the campaign to sell it.
No one ever said that becoming a published author was easy. But becoming a published author never happens without a great deal of hard work, many long hours, and absolute resolve.