It never ceases to amaze me, the number of people who’d like to someday publish a book. I hear it from friends, from acquaintances, from the guy in the airplane seat next to me, from people who sort of knew me in middle school, from eager folks lined up at events and signings.
Those who are somewhat serious about getting published often seem baffled or frustrated by the most urgent-seeming question there is: How do I break into the biz?
As one of those grateful persons who received helpful start-up advice from other writers, and with a couple real-life books under my own belt now, whenever I’m asked this question I always want to help in some way. What I’ve found over the years is that an important first answer to the Biz Question is yet another question:
There are all kinds of reasons why people think they want to publish something. Here are some of the biggies, with this writer’s response following each.
1. You want to be famous/You want to be rich. This one’s first because it’s the most common. It’s also a terrible and incorrect assumption about writing. Most published writers spend most of their days sitting at a desk, doing the hard and unglamorous work of writing. And for most writers, writing is not an overly lucrative profession. There are a few who pull in huge advances for their books. There are also rockstar types who’ll pull publicity stunts and drum up controversy to sell a book—they can end up being especially well known and selling lots of books. Then there’s the other 99.9% of us. If you want to be a writer, you’re far more likely to land in the latter category. If, knowing that, you still want to write, then it might be something worth pursuing.
2. You have something to say. This is not something to be minimized. One of the incredible things about being people made in the Creator’s image is that we also like to make and express things—in this case, art and poetry and sentences and messages. But a publisher will want to know whether or not people are already listening to you. Within the spheres in which you live and work, are people paying attention? If they are, you’ll see evidence of that. If they’re not, you might be ready to start writing, but the publishing world’s welcome mat likely won’t be rolling your way yet.
3. You have something to say (version B). Are you really ready to say it? With your name written on the front cover? With the words put to paper, with no way of ever fully taking them back? Even if people will think you’re bat-crazy and freely say so all over the Internet? Even if all their friends agree? Even if the sales report is bleak? If your response to any of these questions is “no,” then either your message isn’t precise enough yet or you could use some added humility before jumping onto this train.
4. You want a fast-track or a silver bullet. Don’t we all? Still, at the risk of sounding unfeeling, I’ll say this. Imagine you dream of working for Company Q. It seems like a great place, but you don’t have any contacts there whatsoever. Still, Company Q has 25,000 employees, and most of them have their email addresses posted online. So you pick one that looks nice, and you email Employee X. You write a perfectly wonderful introductory paragraph, then you boldly ask for their advice on how to get hired at Company Q.
What does Employee X do? She, while likely impressed by your earnestness and initiative, might also feel slightly intruded-upon, and as such she deletes the email and gets back to work. Why? Because she has work to do. And because this is the third such email she has received in a month. And because she expects you understand that 1) the two of you are not actually in a relationship and 2) the conventional way to apply for a job when you don’t have any real connections is to build a fitting résumé and send it to the HR Department.
What am I saying? I’m saying that road into publishing is not unique in what it requires. Figure out what the employer (publishing industry) is looking for. Develop your skills. (Write!) Master entry-level positions so you’ll be prepared for the more complicated ones. Foster professional connections over time; then, when opportunities arise, you’ll be in a natural place from which to pursue them. These are the building blocks of any lasting career. If you don’t have connections in the industry but you want some, then do the work of making and having and keeping them. That is a great context for requesting personalized advice.
And if you’re one of the lovely folks who has emailed me lately, asking how to get published, I have not deleted your email. A how-to response is coming in my next post.
5. You love books. A fabulous start. But if you want to be in publishing, you should also love writing. That is: drafting, re-writing, receiving critiques and feedback, re-drafting, editing, deleting. Don’t think these are necessary parts of the writing process? Then you’re definitely not ready to be published.
6. You love books, you have something to say, you don’t care whether it makes you rich or famous, and you’re willing to do the grunt work. Well, nice to meet you. I might like to see your book in print someday. Check out my next post for some thoughts on moving forward.
Related: So You Want To Write? Part 2