Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing for Publication

Photo courtesy of Sunny Mama via Wikimedia Commons.

First of all, congratulations! You’ve taken the first step toward publishing: deciding on an idea, however vague. This is by far the easiest part. The next part involves asking yourself a series of questions about the project in question and how you plan to publish it. (Naturally you also have to write it, but that goes without saying. So let’s talk about the business side.)

1. What are you writing?

The “publishing industry” is an umbrella term for numerous types of writing and the publications that, well, publish those types of writing. Your first job is to figure out which niche your shiny new idea fits into and plan accordingly. The process of writing and publishing a personal essay for Buzzfeed is not the same as it’d be for an investigative reporting piece in The Detroit Free Press, a self-help book for Harper Collins, a self-published YA novel, or a proposal to a university press based on your doctoral thesis. Since my background is in journalism and fiction writing, those are the publishing industries I know best, but with the help of the Internet, guidelines for every type of writing are readily available at places like Writer’s Digest and Publishers Weekly. Not only can they help with finding a home for your book, but they can help you hone your craft, too.

Do you want to write the next great novel? Awesome, me too. Which genre? Who is your target demographic? There are children’s books, middle grade (around late elementary to pre-teen—for reference, the Harry Potter series starts at the upper end of middle grade), young adult (13-17), new adult (18-24, think college age, but it’s often absorbed into adult), and adult categories. The genre and demographic are crucial in how you will market the book, but more importantly right now, they’re crucial in how you’re going to write it. The tone, subject matter, word count, and reading level are all affected by these two values; if you want to write about graphic sex and drug use, it better not involve underage characters.

Do you want to write short stories instead? Genre and demographic still apply here, but unlike writing a novel you have two options: publishing shorts in a volume of solely your own work, or publishing a single short in an anthology or magazine alongside other authors. If you choose the latter, you’ll likely be submitting stories directly to publications that have a narrower focus and guidelines, whether that be in genre, word count, theme, or all three. There are way too many short story markets than I could list here, but check out Duotrope or Submissions Grinder to start.

Are you more interested in nonfiction books? Successful authors of nonfiction typically have some kind of specialized knowledge or skill set that makes them stand out. If you want to write a self-help book, for example, why are you the most qualified person to do so? The same goes for writing about history, politics, animal husbandry, etc. All writing requires research to some degree, but for these books, the research and reporting is the whole point. Make sure you’re on your A game.
But then there are also memoirs, autobiographies, and humorous books like Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too. Memoirs typically focus on a single theme or crucial portion in someone’s life. Autobiographies take the longer view.

What about poetry? Poetry is similar to short stories in the way that they are published: in personal collections or in specialized markets. Of course, there are a lot of different types of poetry. My knowledge of poetry stops at rhyming “cat” with “hat,” though, so I won’t embarrass myself. You can find additional resources HERE, but a lot of the same rules and guidelines of publishing fiction apply here.

Don’t forget online media, newspapers, and magazines. This is where the journalism side comes in. In order to get a byline in a newspaper or magazine, you’ll need to “pitch” it to an editor who works there. This process happens before you begin writing the article, but the specifics — word count, subject matter, tone, deadline, payment — depend on the individual publication you’re working with. Maybe you want to pitch an article that requires reporting, and that tends to pay more, or maybe you want to write personal essays or opinion pieces (Op-Eds). If you have a favorite publication you’re interested in writing for, check their website for submission guidelines. If there’s none published, you’ll have to contact the relevant editor directly. Make sure you do your research: don’t submit pitches blindly, or you will be ignored and probably laughed at. Pitches are short, sweet, and to the point but each editor has different preferences. Again, research, research, research.

2. How are you going to publish it?

If you’re interested in publishing articles in newspapers, magazines, or on established websites, the “how” goes without saying. With books, it gets more complicated, so let’s focus on those. Most people are aware of the “Big Five” publishers: Macmillan, Hachette, Penguin/Random House, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster. Through dozens of imprints, these corporations publish the largest share of books today, and their vast resources make them the Pie in the Sky goal for most authors. Not only do these traditional publishing deals lend a great deal of prestige, but they also typically involve royalties and advances—sometimes as high as into the six-figure range. But as you can imagine, the barriers to entry for a traditional book publishing contract are extremely high, and even most traditionally published authors will never sell more than a couple hundred copies, let alone be able to write full time. Thanks again to the Internet, though, self-publishing has become a great option for a lot of authors, and there’s no reason you can’t write and self-publish one book while aiming for a traditional contract with another. There’s also hundreds more smaller presses (sometimes called “indies”) that provide many of the same benefits of working with a Big Five publisher albeit on a smaller, less intimidating scale.

Traditional Publishing. If you would rather have someone else pony up the manufacturing, promotion, and editing costs, as I’m sure most of us do, then traditional publishing is for you. Being able to focus on the craft of writing while professionals handle the business end is definitely an advantage, though like I mentioned before, the downside is higher barriers to entry as well as less control over the final project. Most authors do not have much say, if any, in the cover design or the “blurb” (synopsis) listed on the back. If an editor wants you to change something, whether that be as small as a character’s name or as large as an entire plot arch, you might be able to compromise but there are some things that are set in stone: Take it or leave it. Before you submit your manuscript, make sure you are familiar with the types of books the publisher/imprint has bought in the past and which have been the most lucrative for them. Don’t go to an imprint that specializes in romance and expect them to welcome your tragic Shakespeare-esque tale with open arms. First make sure they are open for submissions; if they are, read their guidelines carefully and follow them. (For nonfiction books, you’re usually required to write a proposal before you even begin the book.)

If you’re after a Big Five contract, you’re probably going to need a literary agent first—most editors at large publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions. A literary agent is someone who markets your book to publishers on your behalf, and if the book is sold, they get a commission off the advance—typically about 15 percent. Literary agents may offer to read your manuscript in response to a “query,” a short letter you submit that outlines what the book is about in an engaging way, or through contests and other events such as #DVPit or #PitMad on Twitter. If an agent reads your novel and loves it, they may offer representation if it fits their niche. If so, congratulations! You’re one step closer to the career of your dreams. For more information and examples of the query process, check out Query Shark.

Self-Publishing. With self-publishing, you’re wearing all the hats—writer, editor, publisher, promoter, graphic designer—unless you outsource those duties to someone else, and that’s going to cost you money. But it also means you’re not limited to the same standards that traditionally published books are. The average adult novel is about 90,000 words or less; most publishers won’t even bother reading your book if the word count is much higher than that. But maybe you want to write a book that defies convention, combining werewolves with space operas and erotica. Maybe you want to be the next Chuck Tingle; I’m not here to judge. With self-publishing, the only voice you have to listen to is your own. (Although that’s still no guarantee someone will actually want to read or buy whatever you come up with!)

Amazon is by far the leader, for better or worse, in book sales today, so if you’re self-publishing, you’ll probably want to do so on the Kindle marketplace. Read through the guidelines and their process. Make sure you understand the Terms of Use thoroughly before you hit that final “Publish” button, and don’t forget to consider Kobo and Barnes & Noble, too. These places all allow you to publish your novel for free, so there’s no risk in trying to use as many sites as possible.

When creating your beautiful little book baby via self-publishing, it’s also important to keep a few things in mind: First, respect copyright. Do not just randomly search Google for images, write your title and name across the front, and think you can use that as a book cover. It’s rude and illegal. Buy stock images for commercial use, ask your friends to model for you, or hire a professional who already has access to stock photography and graphic design software. Some graphic designers even offer premade templates you can buy as long as you don’t mind a few clones lurking out there.

Second, if you don’t hire outside help for anything else, please hire a copy editor. Is that self-serving of me? …Probably, but it’s also true! There is nothing worse than spending months or years writing the book of your heart only to be bludgeoned with dozens of one-star reviews because of typos. No one has fun that way. Please think of your readers. Think of the children. Please do not use Spell Check as your first line of defense. That’s how we end up with Pubic Schools.

3. Writer Beware!

Millions of people worldwide are desperate to publish a best-selling book, and plenty of companies and salespeople will take advantage of that. There are tons of scams out there that prey on aspiring writers. If someone tells you there’s an application or entry fee for them to consider publishing your manuscript, run. Run far, and run fast. Reputable publishers and agents do not charge you for the pleasure of reading your book.

Vanity presses, on the other hand, charge you upfront specifically because they do not gatekeep—if you’re willing to pay their fees, your book will end up on their website…and unlike with traditional publishers or self-publishing platforms, with vanity presses often you don’t own your copyright, they do. Because of this, they are hotbeds for scams and misleading marketing, and books published with vanity presses are typically not eligible for major book awards. If you just want to create a cute little memento to share with your friends, working with a vanity press is fine. But if you want to make writing a career, it’s best to stay away and either self-publish or work with the professionals.

To that end, Writer Beware is a crucial resource for independent authors. It’s not just the presses themselves that may try to take advantage—promotional companies, “editors,” and “graphic designers” will make promises they can’t keep, too. As always, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Before entering into a business relationship with any company or individual, make sure they have a clear contract that outlines everything they will do and how. If you’re still unsure, ask for references or Google their name for reviews. Don’t feel guilty about being skeptical—if they’re the professionals they say they are, they’ll encourage questions and do whatever they can to make you feel comfortable and accommodated. If they try to rush you into making a decision right at that second, run for the hills without looking back and congratulate yourself on getting in an impromptu leg day.

Like most good things in life, publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time, build your tribe (joining writing workshops, groups, or organizations can make all the difference!), and most importantly: have fun. Happy writing!

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