How to Write a Novel, Part 8: Publishing

You’ve written the story, revised the draft, and edited the manuscript to near-perfection, all to reach this point: publication. But don’t start decorating that memento box for your rejection slips yet. The digital age has transformed the way people consume fiction, and consequently the way its distributed. Today’s authors now have more choices in distribution than ever before…and more demands on how they promote their works and engage with their audiences.

Traditional Publishing

Despite the popularity and convenience of ebooks, I believe there will always be a market for paper books and the traditional publishing houses that support them.  Some authors feel an established imprint legitimizes their work. Working with a major publisher may also simplify matters of finance and distribution by putting them in someone else’s hands.

But these benefits come at the cost of some freedoms. Agents and publishers accept only a select few novels they believe will sell in the current market. Editors may demand you alter your story to fit a commercial niche, and they control the price point of your books. Even once you satisfy these requirements, the process can be painstakingly slow. Most books take at least a year to go to print, sometimes longer. And as ebooks comprise an increasing percentage of fiction sales, royalties and up-front payments for new authors are lower than ever. A 2014 Author Earnings report provides in-depth analysis of these trends.

If you decide to have a go at traditional publishing, the first thing you’ll need is an agent. Writer’s Digest keeps an excellent roster of agents seeking new clients. Review the listings and find one who represents books in your genre. Read their specifications carefully, then craft a polished query letter You can find lots of good examples online, but the basic features include a synopsis of your story, it’s length and genre, and why you think it will appeal to the target audience. Pitch four to eight agents simultaneously—they take a long time to respond, and if you do one at a time, it’ll be years before you sell that book! Be patient and don’t get discouraged. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone received at least a dozen rejection letters. A Wrinkle in Time received 26. Be persistent!

Thankfully, self-publishing doesn’t involve a massive Gutenberg press in your basement.


Self-publishing is the online dating of the book world: the initial stigma is fading as more and more participants find success. Let’s dispense with the tired meme that self-publishing is the last resort of rejected authors. Hits like Wool and The Martian originated in self-publishing. More and more new authors like myself choose this model because it better suits our needs and goals. I self-publish mainly because it affords complete creative control. I can craft my stories however I see fit, without an external force altering my art for the sake of sales trends.

It’s also a much faster distribution channel. Once the book is finished, I can make it available within 24 hours. For a book like Blue Karma that involves time-sensitive subject matter, timeliness is key. If I had to wait several years to get a publishing deal and go to print, the climate-changed world I described would probably have lapsed into non-fiction! I can also set my own timeline for publication, a critical advantage for moonlight authors with full-time non-writing careers.

Greater freedom also means greater responsibility. A self-published author is also her own agent, marketing strategist, finance department, and media relations representative. I won’t lie, it’s a lot of damn work. And it takes a long time to pay off. Getting attention for a self-published novel—especially the first one—takes tireless effort.

The basic process is simple: create account with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or whatever platform you choose; upload your book; and use the available dashboard of tools to manage sales. Ebooks are easy and affordable. If you’re determined to have physical copies, consider print-on-demand services like CreateSpace and Smashwords. However, they may not be cost-effective for your purposes.

In either format, you’ll need a properly formatted manuscript (programs like Scrivener make it easy to convert your story file into the correct filetype) and an eye-catching cover. Don’t skimp on this last one. With a Google search for open-source images and free online photo editing tools like BeFunky and Pixlr, anyone teems with graphic designers trying to build a portfolio who will create a professional cover for reasonable fees. Just like in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, an ebook cover is often what first attracts prospective readers. Don’t miss your first opportunity to get their attention!

Self-Promotion for Authors

No matter how you choose to publish, you’ll need to learn the art of self-promotion. Establishing a strong author platform will help market your books and win new readers. Every modern writer needs an up-to-date, professional website. WordPress and others offer free web hosting with easy-to-use tools for building your page. At a minimum, your website should feature each of your books and information about the author. I find including a blog is a great way to generate traffic (and keep writing between projects). Your page can also serve as home base for your social media.

Confession time: I don’t like social media. I’m probably the only person in my generation who has never had a Facebook page. But I recognize how essential these tools are for engaging readers and building my brand (and now that I’m more comfortable with it, sometimes it’s even fun). A few to consider:

  • Facebook. It’s ubiquitous and easy to connect with lots of people.
  • Twitter. If you’re pithy and engaged, you can build a considerable following in a short time. Find clever ways to link your books to trending hashtags.
  • GoodReads. An ideal place to connect with dedicated bibliophiles, participate in groups, and cultivate more reviews for your book.

There’s a secret to success on all these platforms. It’s social media. You must socialize. Turning into a human spambot who broadcasts an endless barrage of advertisements—”hey everyone, buy my book!!!!! please???”—will alienate readers. Instead, engage in a genuine way. Share interesting things relevant to your genre. Talk about books you love or offer tips for other writers. Get people interested in your personality, and they’ll inevitably look into your books.

For more on this subject, check out my Indie Author’s Guide to Shameless Self-Promotion.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job…Yet

This is the part where Auntie J.K. sits you down and tells you the Facts of Life. The Debut Bestseller is—with very few exceptions—a myth. It’s a great story, but not at all reflective of reality. I recently read an article by a major publishing editor who estimated that most authors (indie or major imprint) publish an average of four titles before achieving financial viability. Blue Karma has won several awards and received universally positive reviews, but it’s barely earned enough to buy me a new pair of running shoes. Don’t expect your novel to start paying your bills anytime soon.

We all dream of becoming full-time authors. It’s not impossible, but it is a long-term project. Once you make peace with this, you can trade in some of that frustration for greater satisfaction in writing and publishing. If your book appeals to readers, it will succeed. Not overnight, but eventually. In the meantime, write the best stories you can and don’t lose sight of that ink-stained grail.

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