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Some Collected Wisdom on Writing and Publishing
I’ve been asked about writing for many years. How do I start writing? What should I write about? Should I write in the morning? What method or style of writing will increase my chances of success? Should I get an agent? How do you choose a publisher?
In a four decade career in higher education, consulting, and now missions, I’ve asked my own questions. Every time I met an author I tried to discover what made him or her successful. I asked them about their tricks of the trade.
The observations that follow were gleaned from those multiple conversations with published authors, book editors, and publishers, along with a few tidbits from my own experience. I’ve paraphrased original comments to make them more accessible, and I’ve borrowed heavily from friends “in the know.” I salute their experience and expertise so freely and lovingly given to the writing craft.
Some Thoughts on Writing
All writers experience “writer’s block.” Stop. Take a brief break, like a walk. Perhaps read a pertinent book. Pray. Think about what you are trying to say.
All writers experience “writer’s doubt.” That’s one reason “writers’ colonies” have developed in places like Paris, New York, or Boston. Writers need one another for stimulation, encouragement, affirmation, etc. So when you experience “writer’s doubt,” remember, you’re normal.
For most of us, writing is work. It may be enjoyable work, but it is still work. That’s the source of the old joke about the author who was asked, “Do you enjoy writing?” The author replied, “I enjoy having written.”
For some of us, writing is like going on a diet. We don’t do it until we really want to do so. Desire produces discipline. Far more people aspire to write than actually do.
Dreamers dream, writers write.
There are many reasons people write, personal expression, professional obligation, a sense that something “needs to be said,” to earn income, ministry or service, etc. Whatever your reasons, try to pick topics about which you are passionate, or at least care about. The writing process will be far more enjoyable, and you’re much more likely to finish the project.
Write sometime, some way, every day. Make writing a habit.
Know why you want to write. Identify what drives you. Set realistic, achievable, but stretch goals with target accomplishment dates. Goals may be a project, pages/words per day/week, etc.
The better the outline, the quicker the writing. Do your homework.
Once you have the outline and you’ve done the research, write. Just write and keep writing the best draft that you can, but don’t worry a lot about its flow or connectedness or logic. This comes together on the second or third pass. Great writers like Philip Yancey take two-three years to write a book, and they typically rewrite sections repeatedly.
Pick a space where you can leave your writing materials out, open, and ready. It’s easier to “pick up where you left off” than to try and start all over again.
Pick a time to write that fits your own rhythms, early morning, late at night, blocks of time, whatever works. John Maxwell frequently gets up in the middle of the night to write. Works for him. Wouldn’t work for me. Find what works for you.
For some writers writing is not a sacrifice. For most there are trade-offs. Recognize this and make a choice. For example, you may have to give up evening television, etc.
Every writer needs readers, not only when the project is finished but also as the writing is being crafted. Readers’ comments are only as valuable as your capacity to receive critique. Many academic writers never develop this capacity. They seem to think every word they write is “sacred.” Not so. You must set aside your ego and look for helpful criticism with a sense of humility. It’s still your writing, so you do not have to adopt the reader’s comments, but you’ll always benefit from others’ pre-publication review. You should develop the same attitude when you work with editors. This includes project word limits. It’s possible to say “more” with fewer words.
Getting readers may be one of your bigger challenges. People often say they’ll read your material, then don’t read it, or don’t read it in the timeframe in which you need feedback (quickly), or don’t read it with a truly objective eye, i.e. soft-pedaling their response to avoid “hurting your feelings” or saying what they really think.
Try to identify a couple of knowledgeable and objective readers who will faithfully return your material with honest commentary in the timeframe you require. Try to identify one or two other readers, who may know very little about your subject, but who are well-read individuals capable of giving you honest feedback on style, grammar, sentence construction, flow, content, “readability,” etc.
Don’t try to write for multiple audiences. It rarely works. Choose an audience, e.g. college students, colleagues, the general public, professionals, homemakers, rocket scientists, etc., and write for that audience. But know your audience.
Study the writing of successful authors who are writing for the audience you want to reach. Learn from these authors. Don’t copy them. Emulate them.
Some Thoughts on Publishing
Get a publisher and stay put. Get in the publisher’s stable and you and your projects will naturally rise higher on the business’s hit parade.
If you want to increase exposure for your work, program, or organization, write books that reach the public and match the interests of the organization with the public’s interest.
You may want to write for your peers. This is good, but few books will be sold and you may need to identify a university press.
You may want to write books for the general public. In this you’re not trying to “impress” but “express.” Don’t try to show off your vocabulary. Remember, the first law of communication is to communicate.
“Books aren’t bought; they’re sold.” You have to get out and hawk the book. Do media interviews, book signings, speaking engagements re the book, etc. Cooperate with the publisher on this and create your own market.
Books are generally divided into publications categories like academic, professional, inspirational, etc. A trade book is one written for the general public.
Publishing houses generally prefer to receive a book proposal before a book is written so the staff can work with the author to craft the book.
Book proposals are always required and should be presented in the most refined form possible according to the publisher’s guidelines. The proposal allows the publisher to assess the author’s ability to write a well-crafted book and may be the difference between an accepted or rejected project.
It’s kosher to send your proposal to more than one publisher at a time, as long as you tell them what you are doing. But publishers do not really like this and it may be a matter of shooting yourself in the foot by robbing the publisher of a bit of incentive to invest time and money reviewing your manuscript. You are probably better off to submit your proposal to “your publisher” (if you’ve published before) or to the publisher you think fits your topic, then wait for a response (4-6 weeks). If the book is rejected, then of course you can shop it around.
If your book proposal is rejected, stay encouraged. Publishing lore is full of stories of authors who piled up rejections only to publish eventually and sell a lot of books (e.g. J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter).
Sometimes a book contract will include a stipulation about “bulk sales,” meaning bulk orders from an agency like a radio program, which will in turn market the book on air. The contract may stipulate that the author receives a lower royalty rate on these kinds of bulk sales. In other words the author does not receive as much from this arrangement. A lot of books may be sold, but the royalty is lower and this arrangement may also dry up the market for additional sales.
One author said, “Get as good an advance as possible.” But advances are based upon computed and perceived first year royalties, so this is largely a situation of “Pay me now or pay me later.” An advance is good for the author, because it is guaranteed and in the bank, particularly if the book bombs. Many publishers now regularly pay advances because it is becoming a norm and is expected. When this happens, an author may receive one-half the expected first year royalties when the book contract is signed and the other one-half when the book is finished and submitted to the publisher.
For new authors, getting the book published is what usually matters, not really the money involved. So whether you receive an advance or simply wait for royalties does not amount to much.
For new authors, royalty percentages run about 14% to 16%. Very well known authors sometimes get royalties as high as 22% to 24% or higher comparable advances, but this is rare.
For newer authors in particular, literary agents are typically not necessary and, unless they really “add value” to the process, they become “middle men” who may “get in the way” and do little besides take a percentage of the author’s royalties. On the other hand, some literary agents, depending also upon the quality and content of your work, are worth their weight in gold because they can get your manuscript reviewed by publishers who would not look at your unheralded submission.
Edited books typically do not sell well and publishers are not all that interested in them. This is especially so for edited books with many authors, unless the book has a very good focus. Edited books that include a “point-counterpoint” approach around a focused and timely topic sometimes do well. It is the responsibility of the book editor (not the publisher) to secure permission from other publishers to use already published material in an edited book.
Publishing is changing rapidly and dramatically, influenced by the Internet and digital capabilities affecting audio and video productions as well. When you write, consider publishing in a “mediated” format, i.e. a digital presentation. This could be high definition digital video on DVDs, sound design productions on CD, a book or article published on a website, etc. In these formats, you will potentially reach far more people than any print publication could possibly reach, and you will reach younger people who now learn more from media than from any other source.
“Self-publishing” is easier and less expensive than ever and is gradually attaining new levels of acceptance. Self-publishing is perhaps best achieved via electronic means. Publishing one’s own work and promoting it until it attains a recognition sufficient to attract the attention of larger publishing houses is a bit like a new or maverick film maker producing an “independent” film, distributing it as best he or she can, and then evaluating the results. It can happen. Think, The Shack.
Writing is a craft. It typically requires time and effort to develop your best work. Whether you write for yourself or for the world, learn from others and enhance the power of your pen.
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