Generally speaking, if you want to write a book, sitting down at a computer, opening a Word document and starting to write it is not the first thing you should do.
Certainly, every writer should write and keep writing. In the same vein, every runner should run, every person interested in being a chef should prepare food and so on.
But writing a book is not the first thing you should do if you desire to eventually be published. In fact, in many cases, writing the book is much further down the list than you might think.
I don’t want to recommend it is the “last thing you should do” because that phrase has been hijacked by discouragers in every walk of life and has a more negative meaning than I need to make my point.
But for sure writing a book isn’t the first thing you should do.
Any author blindsided by the publishing industry focus on “platform” might have experienced the disappointment when they discover the seemingly never-ending list of “one more thing” needed to be done before an agent or publisher agrees to look at their work. You wrote the book and now you discover you skipped a step or two.
Or three…or eight.
There is one primary reason why writing a book is not the first thing you should do.
Your competition is not skipping steps.
It’s the same reason that being good-looking is not a fast-track to being a great film actor or why a fast runner is not guaranteed to be a great professional athlete. The other person competing for the acting job has been studying acting for 10 years. Your competition for the baseball team has been training to hit a curve ball since he was ten years old.
Competition is the iron that sharpens iron but sometimes that sharp iron cuts deep.
Every literary agent is different, but I personally receive over 1,000 proposals each year from authors inquiring about representation. I look at each one in varying detail, but the most common theme when I decline to offer agency representation boils down to a fundamental issue that the book is out of order. The author should have done some or all of the following, and they didn’t:
- Consider whether they want to have a book published or be a professional writer (those are different paths)
- Study writing
- Study the book publishing industry
- Be a recognized, credible authority on the subject of your book
- Present your book theme in public (non-fiction)
- Get a website
- Work in social media
- Be aware what the market is saying about the type of book you are writing
I could probably come up with several more given enough time.
Your strongest competitors have most often put the book in ninth place after the eight things listed above. In fact, they might have added a half-dozen more steps along the way.
The disappointment that comes with failure to be published is often a result of skipping steps. The book was first when it should have been third, ninth or twelfth.
But working through the steps still makes no guarantee you’ll make the cut, primarily because of competition. But skipping steps will almost guarantee you will be declined.
I have a writer-friend who spent three decades writing in the marketing/advertising world before writing a book. There was no “luck” involved in his eventual success as an author. There were decades of iron sharpening iron, clients who pushed and pushed, decades of honing and crystallizing…and living.
Skipping steps on the way to getting a book published is never effective.
One of the “steps” along the way to a book deal might be to write something in a different medium. Some content from books should instead be articles. Some a series of blog posts. Some should be website content updated every day.
Then, once your message has been sharpened, maybe a book is next. Maybe.
Books are the slowest, most deliberate and long-term communication medium. Urgent messages are communicated differently. If there is a tornado coming to your town, you don’t write a book about it. You sound the alarm and tell everyone to take cover. The book about the great tornado of 2015 comes two years later with stories of the aftermath.
If you have an urgent message of great importance for our society, a book releasing in two years is not the best vehicle for that message.
Books are a unique communication medium. Understanding where they rank on your to-do list is an important element of success. Your competition understands it. So should you.
So, what was my purpose with this post today?
To deepen your commitment and resolve.
Getting a book published and eventually moving into a career of professional writing is not for the faint of heart or the casual writer. Just like so many other endeavors, if it were easy, everyone could do it. But everyone cannot do it, because it is hard.
Are you serious about being an author or do you want to get a book published? Your answer to that question will reveal your next steps. I strongly recommend not skipping any of them.
At a writer’s conference I attended earlier this year, a speaker teaching about social media said if we had a blog, we didn’t need a website.
Do you agree with this?
I have a blog and usually post twice a week. I’m also on FB, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, Instagram, and Linkedin.
A while back I narrowed the focus on my blog after one of your posts. And I try to follow people with a similar focus. (I try to focus on KY and KY people, and I follow KY leaders, products, and athletes.)
Any other suggestions? Thanks so much!
Websites are important as a “home base” for everything you do. It should answer the questions who you are, what you write, where to find your various other social media, how to get in touch with you, where you are speaking, etc.
The world of technology and social media have us all looking for the “next big thing” that replaces everything else and all focus can shift to that. A blog doesn’t replace a website, it builds on it. Both/and, not either/or.
There will be something in the future that will be just as cool as FB, blogs or Pinterest and it won’t necessarily replace something on your list, it will add another thing!
There were certain foundation things you do no matter what. I think websites are one of them.
Thanks, Dan. I’ll add that to my list and get to work on it.
Agents have friends? That surprises me.
Yes…we use them to make money. Have you heard of Amway or Pampered Chef?
Laughter rolling across the Pacific at you … and from the future, no less.
I appreciate this list, Dan. Of course, I like lists, because they help me organize. 🙂
As I studied it, I began to wonder, can some of these things be worked on concurrently with a book? For example, how does one become a credible authority on the theme of our books, especially if it’s fiction? I know establishing credibility takes time, and concerted effort.
As a basic unknown, I would love suggestions on how to begin building on this aspect of your list.
Thank you so much for these suggestions. They’re very helpful.
Good question Jeanne.
Think of building a reputation like you were running for public office. Town, district, county/parish, region, state, national.
It is daunting if you try to run for national office to start. But if you are the local expert or talk about a theme in your local schools, churches, library or community center, it is the start. Then you work your way out to other libraries, schools and community centers, etc.
Dan, I agree 100%…but I’m out of energy, and, perhaps, time.
I wish I had read this years ago; but I missed steps, skipped steps, and fumbled steps. In retrospect, I should have known better. But in retrospect so much would be different for all!
I’m published; I achieved that, albeit a conventional royalty contract with a vanity publisher. Not sure how that came about, and I have grown tired of explaining that I’m NOT SP’d.
No matter. I know that I achieved a dream, and no one can take it from me.
And now – to polish the WIPs, and turn the blog series on dying into a book, and hope that God will put me on the right path, for whatever use this stuff can be, while I can still do it.
Andrew, I am Christian magazine widely read. I can’t remember where I read this at least 10 plus years ago but it has stayed with me. It went something like this: Christian witness when they are dying is terrible. We need a model.
My High School girlfriend’s sister-in-law fought an unusual cancer with great Christian witness as I read it, for my praying and care, in her medical blog. I asked her to let it be published. Maybe to my friend I need to say this again a couple times.
Andrew, as I read your contributions I see your courage with living your assignment for the day. That is all we all have and we take it for granted.
Yes. Take all your self and write your should-be-everyone but not, ordinary, average yet notable courage in your way. Be you in where you are in life. That is our platform. Genuine, authentic, real. as best we can for where, what, who we are in the moment.
I listen to you and so will others.
I’m saying you are significant.
Carla Jo, thank you so much for your moving, uplifting, and encouraging words. I appreciate them so much, and will come back to what you have written here often. (I’;m going to print it, and up it goes on the refrigerator!)
God bless you.
Thanks Dan for the insights. I get what you’re saying and am working in that direction because I know that if I want to be used by God, I have to walk the path required of the work.
It’s just sad to me that Christian publishing seems more platform based then secular. I’ve seen many secular authors platform come from their work not visa versa.
What are your thoughts on that? Or do you think it’s the exception rather than the rule even in secular publishing?
That is a very good point.
General market publishers prefer authors with platforms but content quality wins in its absence.
I think the issue relates to size of market. The Christian market is about 4% of the general publishing market and is dominated by less than a dozen publishers who account for maybe 85% of all revenues. The broader market has big players too, but there are hundreds of publishers working in it.
In general, the personality of Christian publishers is to be good stewards of resources and not make big mistakes. More risk-averse
So, all that to say that author platform is a quick way to sort out the mountain of opportunities presented to publishers. It saves them time.
Thanks Dan. That’s good to know. Wondered why.
I appreciate your insights, which are right on. What disturbs me in Christian writing and publishing is how low the bar has been set.
What is promoted is not a craft that will take years, even decades to master, but a way to feel good about yourself and your “story.” It’s more about therapy than learning a craft. Nothing wrong with that! But let’s not pretend that anyone can do it if they are only encouraged. Your piece makes that point.
Thanks, Dan, for the reminder/challenge that this writing life demands hard work–not just the writing of the book but also the blogging, posting, pinning, etc. of content related to the book. Love this sentence: “Getting a book published and eventually moving into a career of professional writing is not for the faint of heart or the casual writer.”
A thought-provoking post, as usual. In science, building a platform is organic to the work. Publish in journals and present at conferences (every researcher can do this). As your recognition grows, you present the invited conference talks and get asked to write reviews in science journals and chapters in edited books. Finally, a specialty publisher may approach you to write a monograph as an expert in your research area or you approach a publisher with a proposed book topic with a solid platform as an expert already in place. So much easier or at least more straightforward than the gauntlet you describe so clearly for Christian nonfiction.
I’m working on almost all the points you list, and my main difficulty is in figuring out how to build a meaningful platform for historical romance. It’s not like one can demonstrate excellence and leadership in the field without actually having a book in the market. What does being a recognized, credible authority look like for a fiction author, especially an unpublished one? Can you recommend some concrete strategies for fiction writers to develop a useful type of recognition when they are still unpublished?
Couldn’t you have asked an easier question like, “How should the government balance the budget?” or something like that?
Fiction is more about the writing than the platform, but platform still needs to be there.
A credible authority in fiction could relate to the historical period you using as background. This means going beyond Google for knowledge about 19th century New York.
It could also mean being an authority on one aspect of life during that time period. The food, churches, social issues, etc.
This is another reason why genre-hopping creates problems. You could spend years developing a platform for a certain historical period and then decide to do contemporary? Yikes.
Fiction platform building is difficult…but before you do it, you need to be known for something. And it is hard to be known for something when you don’t know what the “something” is.
Focusing first on the “message platform” is key. Everything else will grow from that.
Thanks’, Dan! Your reply is more concretely helpful than you probably realize. “Message platform” – that’s the key phrase, and I already have a strategy in mind.
The answer to your question really is a simple one.
Balance the budget by spending less than you take in.
It’s easy to state the high-level solution. It’s executing the details that can kill you. I appreciate how often I learn something about handling those details here.
I’ll jump in here with an example.
Years ago I met a lady whose research had found a small community in the Carolinas that spoke their own dialect…a version of Creole. She visited there, unearthed some fascinating history and was lauded by that community as one of the few experts in the country on their background. In fact they pointed other researchers and doctoral students to her for information.
She wrote a novel based in that community during the Civil War. Her expertise lent considerable weight and authenticity to her story. Of course she was a great novelist on top of it. The novel and its sequel were published.
Is that “platform”? By today’s standards, possibly. She had a non-fiction topic to talk about in media…the unique character of this modern community that had direct ties to their Civil War heritage.
But the bottom line was that she was a very good writer. And that can go a long way in the “discovery” process.
Hope that helps,
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Great advice, Dan, if daunting. I’m very intrigued by your response to Carol Ashby’s “easy” question. Would an agent be likely to respond to a historical novel book proposal with something like, “I love your book. Great plot, great character development, timely theme. Contact me again when you have xxxx (or xxxxx) followers on a web page devoted to that time period”?
I realize this could open up Pandora’s Box, so I’ll respond in a whisper just between you and me. (I am typing very quietly)
It could be that when an agent or publisher turns down a novelist using the platform issue as code, saying in effect, “I didn’t like your writing.”
Quality is so subjective, so to prevent any discussion or worse, an argument, lack of platform for fiction is used to avoid a painful conversation. But you didn’t hear that from me.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
;-D My keyboard is sealed.
This is so much. I need a couple days to ponder where my thoughts and struggles fit into this. Probably will need to reread this a couple times. These are things said in other of your agency blogs. But here it is all together and pointed to the bottom line. What is my next step?
It has been my big step last week to do what you say to perfect a work by getting it to an Editor. She has an end-of-this month schedule to see where we are at. We. Nice word. I used your list to find my Editor.
I figure during this time to research all your people/businesses listed as marketing experts, take a break of sorts, do what I enjoy toward the next series, do a couple pages left out of this series; help make salsa from the garden, watch hummingbirds at the feeder a little oftener, do more left over spring cleaning, celebrate with many relatives my husband’s birthday and watch Grandkids a couple extra times.
Third reread and again taking the same notes to print it in my whole self. Words like blog and website; endeavor-not for casual, credible authority; urgent message-don’t use books; crystallizing over time. Message content wins, is my hope. We’ll see.
Thanks for the information and direction as always. It sounds like I have some things right and miles to go but that’s okay. Journey is in the name.
I write fiction on spiritual warfare. I have a website and blog twice weekly. We are planning a new piece for the website – “The Allegory Story” for short fiction to illustrate spiritual warfare. Am I close to getting this right?
Christian market – 4% of general publishing? Yikes!!!
Mike Shields II
My site has to be rebuilt due to a catastrophic hard drive failure, and the need to divest myself from my former host. How far have I set myself back on your scale?