In the past, nothing has quite brought out the snide emails and comments like suggesting that writers should do more than just write. (Remember when I said it’s helpful to be able to type fast? I sure do!). There’s a certain slice of writer who bristles at any suggestion that their beautiful art won’t carry the day on its own.
Look. If you want to just write, just write! You have no argument from me. It’s a wonderful and meaningful way to spend your time.
If you want to seek publication, on the other hand, it’s not enough to just write, and despite whatever gauzy nostalgia you’ve been bathing in, it’s never been enough to just write. Sorry. I don’t make the rules now, and I didn’t make them in the olden days either. As long as publishing has been a business (as in roughly 100% of the time), there have been business realities for authors too.
What I’m going to cover here isn’t that hard. You don’t need to be a TikTok star selling NFTs in the metaverse. Sure, you might need to learn a few skills or shake up some old habits, but what I’m talking about here isn’t going to upend your life.
If you still need convincing, let’s start with why this is the way it is.
You have to give your book a boost
If you’re pursuing traditional publication, publishers want to know that you’re going to be a professional author who will do everything you can to help promote your book. If you are self-publishing, you have to find a way to give your book a boost to reach your first readers.
And these days: that means being at least somewhat online and being able to communicate in a way that’s conducive to being productive and part of a bigger team.
The pandemic has only accelerated pre-existing trends that were pushing us online. Publishing employees are now physically scattered and have finally ditched old school habits like sending out paper contracts and manuscripts.
Now then. Here are a few of the basics every professional writer should have in their digital toolbox.
Understand email etiquette
Let’s start with your email address. It should be professional and shouldn’t be an address you share with your spouse. Whatever email program you use to send and receive emails shouldn’t make your missives look like gobbledygook to people who use more common email services like Gmail and Outlook.
Gmail is free and easy to use. So is Outlook. It’s (usually) not hard to move over your old emails so you keep receiving them at your new, more professional email address. You’re really not stuck forever with whatever email service you signed up for in 1998.
But apart from your email address and very basic skills like knowing how to attach and download files, I also think it’s really important to understand email thread etiquette. You should not be in the habit of changing subject lines and sending emails to publishing professionals without the previous correspondence, particularly when it’s an ongoing conversation about a specific topic. You should try to get a sense of email tone, particularly when it comes to things like all caps, and make sure you’re not inadvertently coming across like you’re screaming at someone.
I realize that if you came to email late in life and it’s never been a big part of your life, this all may seem a bit opaque. But professional and timely communication is a huge part of being an author these days.
Be conversant in Microsoft Word
For better or worse, Microsoft Word is still the default game in town for sending and receiving word processing files. If you’re sending your manuscript to a publishing professional, chances are they’re going to want your file in a Microsoft Word (.docx) file. Not a PDF.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use Microsoft Word on a day-to-day basis. Other word processing programs like Apple Pages or Google Docs and fancy writing apps like Scrivener will export to .docx files. (I use Apple Pages as my day to day word processing program and export to Word).
Familiarize yourself with industry standard formatting, and utilize functions like page breaks. If you’re working with an editor, chances are they’re going to send your manuscript marked up with line edits and margin notes, so you’ll need to learn how to engage with these too.
Out of all the hoops you’re going to have to jump through in a publishing journey, formatting is one of the easiest. It pays to be professional here.
You need a website
It’s easier than ever to create a basic, professional-looking website. You absolutely don’t have to learn to code or pay someone thousands of dollars. It’s pretty easy to get up and running via sites like Squarespace and Wix.
Your website doesn’t have to be wildly fantastic or futuristic. It doesn’t have to be a blog. All it needs to be is a professional looking site that gives a sense of who you are and includes some way of reaching out to you.
Some might say that you also need to have at least a basic social media presence, but I don’t personally believe this. If you don’t enjoy being on social media you’re not going to be good at it and you’re not going to sell books that way, so I wouldn’t sweat it. There are many ways to sell a book.
But you should have a professional, Google-able website that at minimum gives people a way to contact you, and at maximum gives people a way to engage with you and keep coming back. As I said way back when, opportunity can’t knock if opportunity can’t find your door.
Your Zoom game should be at least a B+
As someone who is not the biggest fan of chatting through a screen, it gives me no pleasure to report that you need to be at least somewhat good at Zoom. This means having a decent way of recording yourself and participating, a decent background (or knowing how to set up a virtual background), and basic etiquette like knowing how to mute and unmute yourself. Might want to familiarize yourself with Google Meet while you’re at.
Chances are as you move through the publishing process you’ll need to have some meetings with publishing professionals, and even if you’re self-publishing you may want to have a conversation with someone you’re hiring for part of the process, such as designing a cover.
And lately there’s been an explosion of Zoom-based author events and webinars, which may decline somewhat as we emerge from the pandemic, but will likely still be a fixture of the author experience going forward.
Embrace the change
Again. If all you want to do is write: just write. More power to you.
But if you want to expand your audience, don’t just trudge through the motions. Embrace the change and the new knowledge you’re gaining. It might be a pain at first to try to break your bad old email habits, but once you begin to embrace the challenge of learning about new technology and get in the habit learning new things and staying abreast of changes, it really becomes a great way of expanding your horizons.
Did I miss anything? Are there essentials I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Typists in the Office of the Deputy Controller by Beatrice Ethel Lithiby
As long as I don’t have to do any math.
Neil Larkins says
I keep up the delusion that I can still write a killer query which will be enough to get me a contract with a top five publisher while sitting in the comfort and privacy of my bedroom. But it’s fun. And what’s the trouble with dreaming?
Thanks to what you said about a web site, I’ve thought about giving that a shot. It could be fun too.
With regards to Microsoft Word, the function I most recommend people learn how to use is the Styles gallery. Being able to reformat all your headings/paragraphs/etc. instantaneously throughout your entire document is an absolute timesaver that hardly anyone I know actually uses. Less universally applicable is the Show Paragraph Marks feature, which is extremely useful from an editing standpoint since it helps with monitoring all the different types of white space (line breaks, paragraph breaks, spaces, tabs, etc.) that may be lurking there.
Ceridwen Hall says
If you are pitching work to agents or submitting it to literary presses/journals, it helps to be able to make and use a spreadsheet (I use Excel) so that you can keep track of what you’ve sent out and when–and not accidentally resend work to the same place twice.
JoAnn Woodford says
Appreciate everything you’ve said. Will definitely read again & again. I’m slowly losing my mind working on my query. Too many words How can I describe a character or situation without catchy words? Help.