25 Tips for Authors: Established, New, and Pondering
This post was provoked by the many people who have asked me questions about authoring and publishing books over the years. So I thought I’d jot down my answers in one post for ease of future reference.
I’m no expert when it comes to writing books, selling books, or the book publishing industry. So this advice may be about as valuable as the ink it took to publish it on this screen.
Presently, I’ve written over seven books published by five different publishers. And thankfully (surprisingly), each one has done well. So while I claim no expertise in this area, I can write from what I’ve experienced so far.
A few of the points below apply only to first-time authors. But most apply to all authors, aspiring and established.
Due to the length of this piece, you may want to print it out and read it off-line. Then come back online and click on the embedded links.
1. G.H. Lang once said that a person shouldn’t publish a book before age 40. When it comes to non-fiction, spiritually-based books, I agree with him. I was exactly at that age when my first book was published by a legitimate publisher. Before that time, I had done some self-published stuff. But looking back on it, I wish I hadn’t published a word before age 40. As a result, my self-published, out of print stuff is poorly written, unedited, and contains many incomplete points. Not to mention a less mature writing style.
So my first piece of advice is: If you want to publish a non-fiction, spiritually-based book, wait until you’re 40. Let maturity and experience take its course. If not, there’s an excellent chance that later you’ll want to heavily revise and rewrite a lot of what you had written. In the meantime, start blogging (more on that later). The direct quote from Lang: “No man should write a book until he is 40. He needs to prove his theories in practice before publishing.”
2. Be sure your book contains unique content. Over 1 million books were published in the United States last year. A small portion of them (at least in the Christian genre) have unique content. (In the U.S., the average non-fiction book sells less than 250 copies a year and less than 3,000 in its lifetime.) So before you set out to the formidable task of writing a book, do some research and ask yourself: “Does a book like the one I’m wanting to write already exist, and is it in print?” “What’s unique about my book that hasn’t already been said the same way in another book?”
If I was voted “Christian Book Pope,” I’d choose to have only 100 titles published each year. Only the best and most unique books would be published. I think if that were done, some of the most amazing Christian books wouldn’t get lost in our overly-saturated market. And we’d see enormous changes in the world.
3. The reason why anyone would want to write a book is to spread certain ideas far and wide, and hopefully, watch the Lord use those ideas to change lives. Books are still the greatest way to spread a message. Even more effective than magazine articles, blogs, videos, audios, etc. Nothing can replace the book in this particular game.
4. If you’re writing non-fiction, be sure that you’ve experienced what you’re writing about for at least 5 years. Too many authors, I feel, write as arm-chair philosophers. Experience on the ground and in the trenches with a subject is vital to provide accurate and life-giving content. If you are writing a spiritual book, be sure that you have tested what you are writing about over a period of years. Books that are based on theory carry little weight. Books born from experience minister life. (The discerning reader can tell the difference.)
5. Build a readership base. This is vital if a publisher will look at your work. It’s also vital if your book will be purchased by people beyond your best friends and family. Even if it’s self-published. The best way to build a reader base in our day is to start a blog and work on building it well.
Make your first goal 1,000 regular readers (subscribers) who will be inclined to spread the word about your blog to their friends. Then build from there. See my Tips for Bloggers and What I’ve Learned in Two Years of Blogging. Also begin using Twitter and create a web page. For more ideas, see Daniel Decker’s 14 Platform Building Tips for Authors. Note: If your blog isn’t attracting readers, then you may want to rethink writing a book. Unless you’re writing the book only for yourself and your friends. Which is perfectly fine. And if the book is stellar, it will spread through word-of-mouth to some extent. Maybe even beyond.
6. First time authors: Start talking about your first book on your blog, webpage, and Twitter at least 2 years before it releases. Build momentum. Build interest. Build anticipation. Build a relationship with potential readers before the book arrives on the scene.
7. If you want the book to have the most impact, seek a legitimate publisher to publish your book. I’ve self-published, and I’ve gone with publishers. For me, the difference is night and day. Having a publisher gives a book credibility, a better look and feel, and far more distribution.
I have friends who self-publish, and it works for them. But self-published books rarely get large traction. (Please read that sentence again.) And often they’re not as handsome looking as professionally published books that have great graphic designers and paid editors behind them.
Some self-published books break the norm. But those are rarer than chicken molars. Oh, and be cautious about subsidy publishers (sometimes called vanity publishers). These organizations will charge you an arm and a leg to publish your own book (from $10,000 to $20,000). It’s far less expensive to self-publish, and in my observation, it will be just as effective.
The only difference is that you’ll have a lot more money in your pocket when the ink dries. I also suggest that you get some education under your belt about publishing. Sally Stuart’s Guide to Getting Published is a great place to start. And if you decide to self-publish, I recommend you create an eBook. It’s far more cost effective.
8. Obtain a book agent. If you are serious about publishing a book, this one is indispensible. An agent can find you a publisher and will negotiate terms. Many publishers don’t take book submissions from authors; they only deal directly with agents. Trying to find a publisher to accept your project is going to be difficult, but if an agent takes you on, this will help a great deal. Book publishing is a business. Even Christian book publishing.
There’s a lot to signing a contract, and you don’t want to do so ignorantly. Pay specific attention to getting publishing rights if the book goes out of print, the price you have to pay to buy your own book (and the quantity), the royalty and advance figures. For a listing of Christian book agents, get the 2011 Christian Market Writer’s Guide. This guide is a must for anyone interested in publishing a book for a Christian audience. It also compares and contrasts all the different Christian publishers, as well as Christian publications (magazines, etc.). But again: An agent will first want to know if you have a “platform” – a base of readers already in place.
9. If you are writing your book on a “hot” topic, keep in mind that the hour might pass by the time your book comes out. Why? Because it takes eight months to a year from the time you submit your manuscript till the book is available for purchase. So if your “hot” topic will cool down in a year, reserve your writing for your blog or release a PDF on the subject.
10. Try to get endorsements, but don’t panic if you can’t. Endorsements mean nothing to some readers. They mean a lot to others. But they won’t make or break a book. Most of the books that have influenced me the most had zero endorsements. By contrast, reviews and interviews on well-read blogs can be effective. Mike Morrell is the go-2-guy for setting up author blog tours.
11. Be involved in choosing the title, the cover, and the back cover copy. These three ingredients are key to the success of any book. As the author, you want to be involved in the process. Don’t let the publisher decide without your input and involvement. It’s your book, so you need to feel that it properly represents you and your message in every way.
12. Don’t expect your publisher to sell your book. This is perhaps one of the biggest assumptions that new authors make. Yes, publishers have marketing departments and publicists. But those will be about as effective as what you put into promoting the book yourself. You need to help them spread the word about your book. What the publisher does in this area is far more limited than most people think. When it comes down to it, you’re the one who will let people know about your book first and foremost.
David Morrell, author of “First Blood” (which inspired the movie “Rambo” with the Italian Stallion) says, “Unless you are Stephen King, the chances are you’re going to get no promotion from your publisher and you have to become an expert in publicity.” That’s not exactly true, but pretty close. See also Daniel Decker’s So You Want to Become a Bestselling Author?
13. A few people – not many – will resent you for just mentioning your book. I’m not sure where they get this idea, but to their minds, mentioning your own book is a mortal sin. Expect this, but don’t worry about it. If you have a readership in place, and they find your message valuable, the number of people who want to know that you have a new book out will far outweigh those who have issues with you mentioning it.
At the same time, you don’t want to go overboard on this. If you have a blog, it’s a good idea to interview other authors who have written books worthy of note. Or give them positive reviews. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
14. If you are challenging the status quo in your book, expect opposition, character assassination, and even threats. If you aren’t prepared for such things, you really shouldn’t embark on writing that kind of a book. However, whatever you end up writing about, you will receive criticism from some people. If nothing else, they won’t like the title, they’ll whine about the book cover, or they’ll trash the writing style. So authors cannot have thin skin. Especially Christian authors, for followers of Jesus should be unoffendable in the first place.
15. Keep your expectations low . . . very low. Life will be more enjoyable for you. See A Words to All Authors – Aspiring and Actual.
16. When writing your book, identify and write to and for your specific audience. No book is for everyone. So give serious thought to who your audience exactly is and write with those people in mind. For instance, my books Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church are NOT written for every Christian. They are NOT written for scholars or contented pastors. Nor are they written for people who are perfectly happy with traditional church, whether Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical, etc. That’s not the target audience.
The target audience are people who know in their gut that there’s something wrong with church as we know it, but can’t put their finger on what it is. And they are saying within their heart of hearts, “There’s got to be more to church, the Lord, and the Christian life than this.” The root problems are systemic and are rarely identified or touched. The symptoms are constantly identified and have been for the last 50 years. And that’s why nothing substantive changes in the institutional church world. Pagan exposes the systemic/root problems; Reimagining offers practical solutions.
17. You can always make your book a free PDF (I have written two books like this). But in my experience, free PDF books are read by few people compared to books that are printed, published, and could be purchased. Free doesn’t equate a large readership, as counterintuitive as that may seem. And despite all the buzz about printed books being replaced by eBooks, don’t hold your breath. Printed books are still far more in demand, and I don’t see them ever being obsolete.
18. In terms of writing, there’s no one correct style or method. Everyone is different on this. See my Five Mistakes I’ve Made in Writing. Also, check out some books on how to write, and you’ll get ideas. For me, I create a tentative table of contents with tentative headings. Then I start writing the chapters without any consideration to grammar, spelling, flow, etc. I liken this process to putting a few pieces of clay on the wheel. Then I add more clay. And then I put the clay together and begin to form, hone, shape, mold . . . which means rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite . . . until the deadline arrives where I must turn the tyrant in.
The first draft of my work looks like mud. But by the 7th (if the Lord is really empowering me), I’m pushing Shakespeare. Winston Churchill’s sentiments perfectly sum up how I feel about the writing process:
Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.
In a word, the key to strong writing is rewriting.
19. Expect to have seasons where you will grow weary of writing and lose inspiration and motivation. This is perfectly normal. That’s the time to explore how to Recharge Your Creativity and discover What Inspires You to Write.
20. Find a writing schedule that works best for you. You may have to experiment with this until you find your groove. You can check out what other writers do here and here. Atmosphere, including scents, is important to productive writing as well.
21. Some people (professing Christians, yes) will write you nasty, vicious letters and emails because you chose to publish a book. So expect this. These people don’t seem to understand that (1) a book is the best way to spread a message that brings about change and impact, and (2) it takes money to publish a book. (Again: Free PDF books are read by far fewer people than published books. So the impact is very small, if any.)
Oh, and a printed book cannot be compared to the New Testament epistles. Sorry. Epistles are epistles and books are books. No one I know charges for their epistles. But aside from the Gideon pocket New Testament (featured in a vast array of different kewl colors), you need to pay money for a printed Bible. (Just sayin’.) And unless you’re **** ****** no author gets rich off of their books. And some of us don’t profit personally from book sales.
Finally, if you’re someone who has the audacity to rebuke an author for publishing a book, demanding that they give their printed books away for free and “trust the Lord for the money to make it possible,” would you please be the first to make a large donation so they can actually try this?
22. After you are published, be available to dialogue with your readers. Find some way to do that. I mainly use this blog for that. Unfortunately, many Christian authors are completely inaccessible. There’s no way to dialogue with them, ask them questions, challenge them about what they’ve written, or inform them about anything. Their blogs don’t allow comments. They aren’t on Facebook except for an impersonal fan page. Some of them are harder to reach than John Travolta.
23. Consider co-authoring some books. If you have “writing chemistry” with another author, it’s a lot of fun and can help strengthen a book in every way. If you are co-authoring a book with another writer, check here and here for ideas.
24. Expect to be misrepresented. Especially if what you have written is changing people’s hearts and minds. And don’t expect those who misrepresent your work to come to you directly to dialogue or debate the issues before or after they write a straw man critique. Their refusal to approach you first speaks volumes. Leave this in the Lord’s hands.
25. Never forget: It takes a long time for the message of a book to begin to create a visible effect in the world. So be patient. You may see it in your lifetime. Then again you may not. Sometimes a book changes the world after the author has passed on.
That’s all for now. I’m still learning. But I hope this is helpful to the both of you who read this blog. And possibly more.
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See also Advice for Bloggers
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