Building a bestseller

The Weal’s guide to getting published

Getting a book published is hard. Making it successful is even harder.

Literary agents often get 5,000 query letters each year. As well, around 50 per cent of published books fail. Those are the same odds as a coin toss.

Fortunately, there are ways for authors to significantly improve their odds for not only getting published, but also getting exposure. Here’s how to do that.

Step 1: Read
Derek Beaulieu has written 16 books of poetry. From 2014 to 2016, he was also Calgary’s poet laureate, an official position that involves acting as an artistic ambassador and composing poems for official events.

“The first step is to read,” Beaulieu said. “Read everything you can, especially by the presses that interest you.”

Authors should also be willing to read out of their comfort zone, not just within their preferred genre. Of course, that doesn’t mean authors have to write about things they don’t like.

“Authors write the books they’d love to read.”

Step 2: Write
This step is obvious, but it’s also the biggest obstacle most authors face. Whether it’s writer’s block or a lack of free time, many authors simply can’t get that manuscript out.

There are no real suggestions here how to accomplish this. Thousands upon thousands of writers are able to produce manuscripts for little or no reward. Authors either do it or don’t.

Step 3: Edit
Many authors make the mistake of submitting their work immediately after they finish their manuscripts. In truth, it can take just as long, if not longer, to edit a book as to write it.

But how does one do that?

Matt Bowes is the general manager of NeWest Press. This independent publishing house was founded in 1977 and primarily publishes fiction by western Canadian authors.

“I suggest they read the whole thing out loud,” Bowes said, adding that authors should pay attention to how the words bounce off each other.

Bowes also suggested that authors consider taking creative writing classes and have knowledgeable friends look over their manuscripts, such as teachers or friends already in the writing community.

Having a basic knowledge of grammar and structure also doesn’t hurt. Bowes said having a manuscript riddled with technical errors paints an author in a bad light.

One controversial approach some authors take is hiring professional editors to look over their work. Beaulieu said such a tactic was a poor idea.

“Most publishers will have editors in house who will work with you once a manuscript is accepted. No need to hire one in advance.”

Step 4: Format
Another thing amateur authors forget to do is properly format their manuscripts. 

While agencies and publishing houses may have their own unique formatting preferences, there is an industry standard for how manuscripts should look.

Agents and publishers are real sticklers about this. It shows whether or not authors truly take their work seriously.

“Most presses will have the specific information on their preferred form for submissions available on their websites,” Beaulieu said. “Read the websites carefully and follow the instructions.”

Step 5: Research
Once your novel is written, edited and formatted, it’s time to start looking for takers.

The two primary groups of people who look at manuscripts by newbie authors are agents and small publishing companies. Big publishing companies like Penguin Random House are near impossible to reach unless one has an agent.

Netta Johnson is a publisher with Stonehouse Publishing, which mainly publishes literary fiction with commercial appeal.

“Agents are useful, but equally hard to get,” she said.

Bowes, meanwhile, said agents help books spread beyond Canada, and authors are simply “paying them with success.” In fact, any agency or publisher that asks for money from authors should be avoided.

A good resource to have is a copy of The Canadian Writer’s Market, which lists numerous agencies and publishers. It also provides their contact information and what they are looking for in terms of manuscripts.

Step 6: Submit
Many agents and publishers wish to see a query letter submitted along with
a manuscript.

Authors are often so wrapped up in perfecting their manuscripts that they incompetently forget about the query letter itself. 

Query letters are typically under 300 words and contain a synopsis, a rough word count, the appeal of the manuscript and any previous writing credits by the author.

Step 7: Sign
Supposing an agent or publisher reads a manuscript, loves it and wants to publish it, what exactly does an author have to do now?

Not too much, actually. Even contracts shouldn’t be too much of a concern for authors.

Authors usually receive between five and 10 per cent of their book’s cover prices, while Beaulieu said advances are “a rare bet. No one is going to get rich from their writing or publishing.”

Step 8: Market
Perhaps the only real area of concern for authors once they get published
is marketing.

“Most sales come from the connections authors have and the amount of interest they are able to generate about themselves or their work,” Johnson said.

Authors have a better chance at getting published if they have a good market plan, a strong presence on social media and know other authors.

Bowes said tours are pricey, which is why smaller publishers usually focus on grassroots promoting. An example of this would be a book signing at an independent bookstore.

 The alternative: Self-Publishing

With all the recent advances in technology, self-publishing is becoming more and more viable each day.

However, opinions are still split as to whether or not self-publishing could become the new norm.

“Self-publishing is always an option,” Beaulieu said. “If you approach writing as adding to a community’s conversation and dialogue, then you’re off to the right start.”

With self-publishing everything is the author’s responsibility, including promotion and distribution.

Most self-publishing is electronic these days. However, Bowes said, self-published authors now have an easier time printing physical copies of their book. 

“The technology is there to make the print jobs look professional.”

Authors should consider self-publishing when their books have limited readerships, either because such books are too weird or deal with a narrow topic of interest.

Still not there?

It is quite possible to do everything right and still not get published, let alone be successful. Many things need to be taken into account, everything from marketing to the actual quality of the book.

Ultimately, the success of the author depends on their determination, patience and receptiveness.

“More writers will get rejected than accepted by a huge margin,” Beaulieu said. “This is a long process with a lot of heartache.”

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