Friday, December 16, 2016

Writers: Be Prepared to Be Published

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There's a lot you can do to prepare yourself for publication.  

I'm a huge fan of the contest cooking shows, and The Next Food Network Star is a great example for writers wanting to get published. Although the details are different, it's still a person with a creative idea (to host their own cooking show) trying to get someone to "publish" it for them. They have to have a terrific idea, the ability to present that idea succinctly and compellingly, and exhibit their professional-level skills to show they're capable of doing the job.

In every season, the contestant chefs have to present themselves and their food in 60 seconds on-camera and give their culinary perspective. This is similar to an elevator pitch where you describe your book in one or two sentences. You have to know your story and be able to convey it clearly and quickly.

Some chefs did great, others fell flat on their faces.

The NFNS has been on TV for over a decade now, and the challenges and things asked of the chefs are fairly similar per season. If you're trying out for that show, I'd imagine you'd want to watch every episode to see what you were getting yourself into and to start thinking about how to deal with it. You'd practice your presentation skills, maybe even film yourself to see what you're doing wrong or how you come across on camera. You know being on camera and talking about yourself and your food is going to be part of it, because the whole show is about getting your own show on the Food Network.

I'm always shocked at how many folks seem utterly surprised when asked to present on camera. They know they have to do this. They know they need a culinary point of view for the show, because that's what their show will be about if they win. Yet they go into it blind, and act as if, "I love to cook and I want to be on TV" is enough.

Well, it's not. And it doesn't matter how well you can cook if you can't engage an audience.

The same thing holds true for us writers.

Expecting to sell your novel because, "You love to write and you want to be published" isn't good enough. You have to know your story and be able to present it "on camera" so to speak. You need to know the challenges you're going to face as a professional author and prepare yourselves to beat them. Things you ought to know going in:

How to write a dynamite query letter.

This is the sales tool you'll use the most, since this will capture what your book is about. It'll likely become the basis for your cover copy and marketing copy as well, and odds are your pitch line will be a condensed version or line from it. This letter will contain all the critical pieces that make your book special and offer reasons why anyone should read it.

(Here's more on writing a query letter)

How to write a synopsis that captures the story perfectly.

A synopsis is part of the standard submission package, and you will be asked for it. If you're writing a series, you'll also be asked for synopses of the other books in the series.

(Here's more on writing a synopsis)

What's been written in your genre or market and who the movers and shakers are.

The best book ever written about something that already has 20 books on the topics isn't likely to sell as well as a decent book with a brand-new idea. Unfair, yes, but that's the business. It's important to know what's been done in your genre, what's cliche, what's still fresh, what readers are interested in. This helps you decide how to handle your own story.

Studying the bestsellers and big books in your genre and market also provides insights into how to market your book and where your readers are. Books similar to yours can suggest where to promote your book and who else might be interested in that topic.

(Here's more on understanding your market and genre)

A basic understanding of how publishing works.

You don't need to be an expert before your first sale, but you do need to know how the process works. Someone who has no idea what a query letter is, or what editors do versus publishers, or what a market is, is already starting off with a disadvantage--one that makes them look unprofessional and upreared.

(Here's more on what to know about publishing)

A basic understanding of how marketing and promotion works. 

In today's publishing world, more and more of the marketing falls on the authors shoulders. You'll need certain things as a professional author (such as a website and online presence), and having a general plan to promote yourself before you sell will save you time and hassles later. You don't need a full-on marketing strategy, but read enough to understand the basics and know what authors typically do so you'll be ready when you need to market yourself. 

(Here's more on marketing and promotion)

Have the right expectations.

Publishing is a tough business and it takes work to be successful. Going into it with the right expectations helps avoid feeling like a failure when you're actually winning. For example, if you expect the most any book or author can achieve on your first try (say, bestseller status, movie sales, millions of dollars in advances), no matter what your book does you'll be disappointed--even if it does better than most books out there.

Unrealistic expectations can also hurt your chances with agents and editors. Publishing professionals can be leery of writers who expect too much--they know from past experience that these writers are difficult to work with and often not worth the time, no matter how good the book might be.

(Here's more on expectations)

Now, you guys are here looking for advice and tips, so odds are you're already preparing yourselves for these challenges, but so are a lot of other writers--many of them as just as good or better than we are. While we're not competing for one spot, the number of books published every year is limited, so why not do everything you can to better your chances?

I also want to mention that where you are in your writing journey matters, too. If you're actively submitting or close to submitting, start thinking about it as a professional. But if you're thinking about submitting "one day" then this isn't anything you have to worry about yet. Your focus is better spent developing your voice, working on your craft, honing your storytelling skills. Get yourself close to (or at) a professional writing level, then start working on that professional mindset. (Though there's nothing wrong with doing it earlier if you want to. Just don't feel pressured to do so if you're not ready)

Writing is an art, but publishing is a business, and books are a product. Just like the chefs on the NFNS, a little preparation on how to best present yourself and your work, and to do it in a way that says "I'm marketable" goes a long way. While you certainly don't have to know everything, practicing the skills a professional author needs can help you come across as a professional.

And sometimes, that little edge is all you need to win.

How prepared are you to be published?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Excellent post. I love your perspective.

  2. Love that show, and a great comparison.

  3. A good point. I haven’t seen that particular show, but I've seen similar ones and wonder, "How could they have not been expecting that?" They done it for five seasons?

    I'm one the gets tongue-tied, always have. It has been said I'm a wee bit shy as well. What happen to the hermit sigma?

  4. Thanks for the reminder that this is a business (a creative business, but business nontheless). I'm not quite to that point yet, but hope to be ready to hit the ground skipping (I don't like to run) when I am.

  5. Great comparison. Funny how other parts of life teach us things about our writing.

  6. Great advice and how interesting that they have the NFNS contestants do that! An elevator pitch for my MS is something I definitely need to work on. It's always good to have that ready.

  7. I've had this "I'll need to be prepped for this by the time I'm ready to submit a novel to agents" attitude for awhile. I've been nudging myself out of that future tense and into the present, but I may have to kick myself in the behind.

    Fortunately, I'm the type of writer who actively talks about what I'm writing when asked (it doesn't stymie me), so I've already gotten to play with potential elevator pitches... and learned thereby that most people don't understand the term for what one narrator is, so then I have to go back and explain it. >_<

    I get shocked myself by all the folk who assume you have to pay to get published. ...Wait. You have to buy supplies if you're making, say, crochet booties for resale. Maybe people deem the expense of producing the hard copy book as supplies? Hrm.

  8. Great analogy -- I love analogies like this.

    One thought I had was that while it is nearly unforgivable for contestants on that show to be surprised when asked to present on camera -- as in, how could they not have known? It's a TV show? --- there are always those producers out there who don't tell their contestants fully what's going on. I liken that to unscrupulous agents or POD publishers.

    But your point is doubly valid in those cases. If you're entering into any kind of venture, research it yourself and don't rely on being told what is what by people.

  9. I love how you've applied something from one endeavor into another. It is very similar. I've noticed how people seem unprepared, though I've done that a bit in a job interview because my mind went blank and forgot my coherent reasons for wanting the library job. "I love books." (smacks head)

  10. The most common questions I get when folks hear I published a book are:

    1. Did you self publish?
    2. How much did it cost?
    3. What's it called?

    I think unless you write, you just don't know the business and don't understand it. And with all the self published ads out there, it makes sense that that's the first thing to pop to someone's mind. There's even a self publishing billboard I passed the other day. A billboard! And I live in a somewhat small town.

  11. I loved this post, Janice, especially the line "Writing is an art, but publishing is a business." Great perspective and one that is hard (but so important!) to remember when querying.