Writing Q&A: How Thigs Work, From A to Z

This post is probably going to be long. It’s meant to provide a quick reference guide/summary to the process of writing/publishing as compiled by me. As such, it is very much subjective, and nothing I say here should be taken as the final say on the matter. Rather, I intend for this to be a starting point from which new and aspiring authors can launch their research into the process. So, from beginning to end, writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. Questions to be covered:

  1. What constitutes a full length novel?
  2. How much should I edit before submitting to an agent/publisher/publication?
  3. Do I need to register a Copyright for my book?
  4. Do I need an agent/publisher/publicist?
  5. What do I need for submission to agents/publishers?
  6. How long does it take to get a book published once it’s signed?
  7. How do pre-orders work? Do I need them?
  8. Should I send out Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) to reviewers?
  9. What happens after my book is published?
  10. Do I need an author website/blog/social network account?
  11. What is the most important thing to keep in mind when setting up my author website?
  12. How do I market my books?
  13. What about paid ads?
  14. What has worked best for you?
  15. How much does it all cost, this being an author thing?

Are you ready? Here we go!

Q: What constitutes a full length novel?

A: This is a tricky question. Every publisher/platform will have their own rules on length. When I started looking for a publisher back in 2010, every website I checked out said a full length novel is 100,000 words or more. Recently, I’ve heard that number is closer to 80,000. My rule of thumb:

  • Less than 10,000 = short story
  • 10,000-80,000 = novella
  • 80,000-120,000 = novel
  • More than 120,000 = mega novel

If you’re looking to sign with a particular publisher, check their website for specific requirements. 🙂

Q: How much should I edit before submitting to an agent/publisher/publication?

A: My answer to this is as much as you can stomach and afford. The greater part of writing is rewriting, as a wise person once told me. Anything you send out or publish is ultimately your brand and calling card. If you want to make a good impression, make sure your writing is polished to a shine. Generally, publishers do provide editing services as part of the contract agreement. That takes some of the pressure off, but you should still have someone at least read through your book and mark any typos before submitting, especially if you’re submitting for the first time. If you are self-publishing, it’s all on you. You are the first and last person to lay eyes on your book before it goes live. If there are errors, issues, plot holes, etc. left over when it gets into reader hands, believe me, they won’t care who the editor was. All they will see is an author who puts out sloppy work.

Q: Do I need to register a Copyright for my book?

A: The wise legal heads say, technically no. As the creator of your work, you are its legal copyright owner from the beginning, and don’t require a piece of paper in order for it to be protected by Copyright laws. However, if there is ever a legal action (if someone sues you, or you want to sue them for copyright infringement), that piece of paper which you supposedly don’t need is the only legally acceptable proof that you are, in fact, the true copyright holder. People used to send things to themselves by certified mail, or time stamped email as a “poor man’s copyright.” I have discovered that this is no longer applicable as legal proof (if it ever was). Another caveat: when you sign with a publisher, they are supposedly the copyright holders for the duration of your contract. Personally, I am just paranoid enough that I now register a copyright for all of my completed works, whether they’re published or not. Just to be on the safe side.

Helpful note: When you apply for a copyright certificate, it applies from the date of the work’s completion, but the processing time to get a certificate is several months. Register online for a discount on the registration fee. If your book is unpublished, or published in digital format only, you can submit the file directly on their website and cut the processing time in half. If your book is published in print, you can still register online, but you will be required to ship two physical copies of the print edition to the Copyrights office in Washington. Why two copies, I know not. But it is a requirement.

Q: Do I need an agent/publisher/publicist?

A: When it comes to agents, I believe only the biggest Big 5 publishers require submissions to come from agents, rather than authors. The rest tend to have open submission guidelines with dates and instructions on when and how to submit your novel for consideration, which means you don’t really need an agent to get your foot in the door somewhere. But if you want a specific somewhere, or if you want more power to negotiate the contract terms, an agent might be a big help.

In terms of publishers, the choice is really up to you. In this day and age, self-publishing is a legitimate, even lucrative option for new authors. If you’re on the fence about which way to go, ask yourself the following:

  • Do you like being in control?
  • Do you have a good head for business strategy?
  • Can you budget your time and money wisely?
  • Do you like multitasking?
  • Can you create your own cover art, or find/afford someone to do it  for you?
  • Can you format your own book or find/afford someone to do it for you?
  • Do you have, or can you create, a marketing strategy?

If your answer to all of these is yes, then self-publishing is a good choice for you. If any of these is a “no,” then you would probably be better off starting out with a publishing house. New authors especially can benefit from having a publisher. They guide you through the process, and you can learn a lot about how things work in the publishing industry.

An important distinction: publishers publish, but rarely do much in the way of promotion. That is the job of publicists. Don’t expect that once you sign with a publisher, you can just sit back and let them push your book all over the place. Unless you hire someone to help you, the majority of that task is still up to you, and it will be on-going. It never ends. The moment you stop promoting your book is the moment it dies. That goes for newbies and NY Times Bestsellers alike.

Q: What do I need for submission to agents/publishers?

A: Each will have their own requirements, but it never hurts to be prepared ahead of time. Some basic items are a staple for submission pretty much anywhere:

  • Cover letter (an introduction to you and your book)
  • Book blurb (1-2 paragraphs to “hook” the audience)
  • Synopsis (usually 2-4 page summary of the book, including any twists, surprises, and the ending)
  • Excerpt (usually the first 3-5 chapters of your book)
  • Author bio/resume (if you have previously-published works, awards, or honors, by all means, brag them up!)
  • Full manuscript (while rare, some agents/publishers will ask for this up front to expedite the process)

It should go without saying that all of these items should be proofread for typos and grammatical errors at the very least.

Q: How long does it take to get a book published once it’s signed?

A: Each publisher will have their own release schedule and will slot your book in it depending on how busy they are. It can take anywhere from 4 months to a year or more. Your book will go through several steps:

  • Rewrites (if requested, and yes, this happens)
  • Content edits
  • Line edits
  • Proof reading
  • Formatting (which you likely won’t see, unless they send you a proof for your print edition)
  • Cover design and approval

Once all this is finished, your book is ready, and just waiting for publication in its scheduled slot. Something to keep in mind: the publishing house is not a wild animal you need to be afraid of. It’s a well-oiled machine, with stations and workers to move your book along every step of the way until publication. That said, each of those workers (editors, artists, etc.) have a whole docket of authors like you to work with and while they are happy to answer any questions or concerns, keep in mind that you probably won’t get any preferential treatment. Therefore, if you have questions, ask them  once, all at the same time. If you want changes, ask for them once, early on, and all at the same time. This will help things move along faster and prevent any last minute delays.

Q: How do pre-orders work? Do I need them? 

A: Pre-orders essentially put your book out there early, so readers have the option of purchasing it before release date. They don’t get it until release day, but some find it easier to order early,  for whatever reason. This means it can be a great marketing tool. “Hey, I have a book coming out! No, really! Check it out at Amazon and B&N!” Some stores will allow readers to check out a sample of the book, while others just show the book listing. Some rack up all your pre-orders and count them as your first-day sales, which can significantly boost your sales rank. Amazon doesn’t do this. Your sales rank there is born on the day you upload your pre-order, and goes up or down from there. Now, if you have a solid marketing strategy, pre-orders can help you create buzz around your book. If not, if  you announce the pre-order, and then forget about it, your readers will too, which means your official release will be buried under hundreds of others.

Q: Should I send out Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) to reviewers?

A: I keep going back and forth with this one. There is always the risk that an unscrupulous reader/reviewer will pirate your book, which is one of the reasons why I don’t do it. If you know and trust the reviewer, by all means, give it a go. If not, I would advise against it. Also, if you can afford to send physical copies of your book, that is perhaps a safer option than digital.

Q: What happens after my book is published?

A: You market, promote, and repeat, and while you do that, you write the next book. Publishing a book is not the end of the trip, it’s only the beginning. You have to put yourself out there, connect with readers, expand your network so more and more people know your name and your books.

Q: Do I need an author website/blog/social network account?

A: Yes, to all of the above. Here is why:

  • Everyone Googles these days. The best way for Google to find you is to have a dedicated website, and active blog. This is your online calling card and resume. It can be as simple or as elaborate as you like, but it should exist somewhere on the Interwebs. Each time you post a new blog, Google pushes it toward the top of search results, so readers find you first, and not a pirate site, for example.
  • Social networks are the fastest, easiest, most effective way to spread the word about your book. They are international, unrestricted, and very popular. Meaning, for a very small investment of time (or money, if you run ads), you can reach a whole lot of people you never would have reached at in-person events, over the local radio, or with TV spots.
  • Both websites and social networks are always optimized for mobile devices, which is what you want. People browse the internet, Facebook, and Twitter from their phones now, more often than from a computer. There are also reading apps for each device, which means people can (and do) read on them as well. Hitting many birds with one stone here. That’s great for you. 🙂

Q: What is the most important thing to keep in mind when setting up my author website?

A: Discoverability and accessibility. Discoverability is the ease with which people can find your website. To make your website discoverable, use a URL that tells people right off the bat what your website is about. AuthorName.com is the perfect way to do this. If that URL is taken, play with it, but stay as close to your name as you can. Maybe try AuthorNameBooks.com, or Author.Name.com. The idea is to make your name pop up as high as possible in Google search results. Try not to use the name of your book or series, unless you are creating a website dedicated solely to that book/series. You want a website to promote you as an author, and in that capacity, you will be writing more books, so a book-specific URL will become outdated very quickly.

Accessibility measures how easy your website is to navigate. Can visitors find your books right off the bat? Do you have an About Me page? A contact page? Is there a menu listing everything in neat columns, or do people have to hunt around to find what they need? Keep in mind that a website and blog should be two separate entities, even if they are both housed in the same place. Each platform will also have its little glitches and foibles. Learn them, and find a way to work around them. Also, try to avoid information dumps, too much text, and confusion as much as possible.

Q: How do I market my books?

A: By talking about them. All the time. To everyone. Post about it to social media. Share excerpts, discuss your progress on the book, take pictures of it, your writing space, anything you can think of, related to you being a writer. If you start chatting with the person in line behind you at Starbucks, mention you’re a writer. Look for places that will help you spread the word even farther. If you can afford it, have business cards and/or giveaway items with you at all times to hand to people who ask you about your books. It never hurts. A pen, even a cheap one, is always a neat thing. Even if people drop it, someone else will probably pick it up and see your name on it. After a business card, pens are good giveaway items.

Q: What about paid ads?

A: Okay, here’s what I have learned so far with ads:

  • They do work on occasion, though not always
  • New ad platforms work better than more established ones (a 5-year-old mailing list of 13,000 people who probably don’t even open the emails anymore is less effective than a new website with 5,000 fresh subscribers looking for new books)
  • Ads cost money, so budget wisely
  • Weigh the pros and cons against effectiveness
    • Paying for reviews, or to list your book for review, is something I consider unwise, but if you can get a free trial, it is worth trying
    • Paying for print ads is astronomically expensive, and your odds of recouping that cost go way down
    • Paying for an ad on Goodreads/online store is also very expensive, and because of the stratified nature of these places, you will only ever reach a portion of your readership

Q: What has worked best for you?

A: My answer will probably disappoint a lot of people. The truth is, I don’t know. I keep looking for and trying new ways of marketing my books. Some work, some don’t, some work once and then become useless, others don’t work until I do them ten or more times. I tried giving away swag. It cost a lot, and I’m not sure if it helped much at all. Printed stuff like postcard prints, bookmarks, etc. usually end up in the trash. Physical items such as mugs, stress balls, key chains, pendants, etc. tend to live longer, but they are also much more expensive. Ask readers what they like getting in their goody bags at conventions and they will unanimously tell you, “autographed books.” Which is great as a giveaway item, but it does nothing for the author in terms of marketing. It doesn’t even help sales ranks because you purchase them as author copies, which are excluded from the count.

In general, online marketing gets you a lot more exposure for lower cost. I used to post book trailers all over social media. I still do, but the nature of the beast has changed. If it takes a minute to sit through a video, most people will just scroll right past it. On Facebook and Twitter, the post needs to attract attention at a glance, so graphics usually work best for me. I include a short quote from the book, its title, and my website URL. When I post it, I do it with one or more direct buy links for the books. If readers like the quote, they usually click on the buy link to check out the book. That’s currently the focus of my marketing strategy. 🙂

Q: How much does it all cost, this being an author thing?

A: It can cost a little or a lot, but it will always cost something, and you won’t always recoup the cost until years down the road. Consider that this is a new business venture. Every business takes time to establish. The rule of thumb is if you open a new business, it will take about two years for you to break even, let alone start turning a profit. If you really want to make a go of this, you will need to invest into it. How much is up to you, but the list below should give you a realistic starting point. Underlined items are (or should be) mandatory if you want to do this professionally. The rest are optional.

  • Editing services: $200-800, depending on book length, should include 2+ rounds of edits/proof reading
  • Cover art: $60-400, depending on whether it’s eBook, print, or both
  • Formatting: $99-250, depending on who you use, and how they work
  • Initial promotions: $100-500, depending on how much you can spare, includes stock images, graphic design, advertisement, and your time, because that costs money too
  • Subsequent (continuous) promotions: $0+, depending on what/how you do it

If you go with a publisher, some of these costs get absorbed by them (editing, cover art, formatting), but not really, because they get it back from you through a slice of your royalties. The rest will be up to you. There are ways to make your buck stretch farther. If you’re hiring someone to create your covers, negotiate with them to make a couple promotional graphics, too. If you want to make those on your own, look for free and cheap stock image websites, and free programs/websites to edit them (see my Author Resources page for more on this). Join reader/book groups on Facebook, and post your books there. As I always say, you have two commodities to spend: time and money. You must decide which is more valuable to you, and spend it wisely.

So there you have it. I think I covered everything. Thanks for reading this far. I hope I was able to provide some useful insights for you guys. 🙂

Do you have a question I haven’t covered? Ask in the comments below and I will do my best to help you out.

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