Talking about traditional publishing as a means to book discovery at the end of our series is by design. Here at Author Marketing Institute, we’re much more focused on self-publishing than we are on traditional publishing. One of the reasons AMI Founder Jim Kukral created the site was because of his distaste with a traditional publishing experience he had back in 2010. That being said, it’d be shortsighted of us not to mention traditional publishing as a possibility for book discovery. Plenty of authors (some of whom are now self-published) got their start through the well-worn path of agent to editor to publication. While there’s no formula to getting your book traditionally published, there are certainly some things you can do to improve your chances.
Improving Your Skills And One Heck Of An Idea
Working and reworking the same book for 10 years is the equivalent of finishing and re-doing the same third grade spelling workbook over and over again. You’re not going to learn much about writing craft if you don’t continually work to take on new, difficult challenges. Traditional publishing isn’t going to take many chances on a newbie writer, so you need to arrive fully-formed by the time you submit your first manuscript.
How do you get better as a writer? It starts by writing as much as you can and reading as much as you can. There’s a saying that you don’t find yourself as a writer until you’ve written your first million words. Some authors have gone so far as to literally write seven-figures worth of words and scrap every single one. We recommend holding onto those words and considering self-publishing them, but that part of the learning process is up to you. As you’re writing, you’ll want to get feedback from experienced editors, friends, and voracious readers. You don’t have to take all their notes verbatim, but you’re required to learn what works and what doesn’t work along the way.
Reading as much as you can will help you learn best practices as well. Nobody is telling you that you have to read the classics or snore your way through some Dostoyevsky, but you should at least read in the genre you want to write in. Carve out the time to read at least two books a month and take notes on what you like, what you dislike, and what you can improve upon. Reading and writing are the fundamentals to getting better as you go along.
As you’re developing your craft, you want to start considering the kind of ideas you’d pitch once you get in front of an agent. Author David Farland has helped to coach many authors who later became hugely successful in traditional publishing like Stephanie Meyer and Brandon Sanderson. He recommends taking your original ideas and tweaking them to have a wider appeal. The more people who could potentially read it, the happier your traditional publishing contacts will be. He notes that many bestselling books take readers on a journey to somewhere they’ve never been. It’s no wonder than Dan Brown’s books have been so popular, given their tendency to globe trot through Europe. You’ll also want to coax out the deepest possible emotions in your story. Apathetic characters and plot lines rarely make it past the first pitch stage.
When it comes down to it, how a book idea makes you feel is irrelevant. It needs to make readers feel something. You must transport them to another place, physically and emotionally. If your idea can’t do that, then it’s unlikely to sell.
Why You Should Show Off In Person
Few authors take the time to write those million words and come up with a sellable idea. Doing so builds up a strong foundation that significantly improves your chances of publication. Unfortunately, it’s not enough, and you’ll still need to convince an agent and then an editor that your idea is worth its salt.
Query letters are pretty hit or miss, so it’s better to spend money on going to conferences where agents and editors will be on hand to read submissions. As with the Meeting Merchandizers strategy, smaller conferences with more one-on-one attention are better bets. You may have to spend a decent chunk of change to go to a conference that features agents or editors in your genre, but you’ll get so much more out of a face-to-face meeting than you will from sending a letter. There’s still a chance you’ll be turned down, but if you’ve spent the time improving your craft and generating your sellable idea, your chances improve dramatically.
There’s one more thing that can sweeten the pot for agents and editors to take on your book. If you have an existing platform of readers and followers, then you become much more attractive to a publishing house. Publishers give book contracts to people like Snooki because they have millions of social media followers. You may not have a Jersey Shore-worthy following, but if you have thousands of email subscribers, it’ll make your publishing pitch that much easier. The more you show that you can sell your books, the more likely it is you’ll be accepted.
But If You’re a Good Writer And You Have a Following…
If you’re good at what you do, and readers already like you, then why are you considering a traditional publishing contract? There are a variety of answers to that question. It may be a dream of yours, or you may not want to deal with the slog of editing and cover design. You might think that your books would sell better in a book store, or you could be eyeing a future career in speaking. As you’re considering this question, remember that there’s nothing wrong with being both a self-published and a traditionally-published author.
Hybrid publishing may be the future for all authors going forward. There are too many benefits to self-publishing for trad pub authors to ignore forever. If your heart is set on getting into bookstores, then self-publishing those first million words before sitting down with an agent might be your best ticket to success in both arenas.